Our Nig Summary

Harriet E. Wilson

Our Nig

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Our Nig Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson.

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson was first published in 1859. While it is based on her own life, it is a novel and thus considered to be the first novel ever published by an African-American woman—in fact, she is the first African-American of either sex to publish a novel in North America. The book was published anonymously in Boston and received little recognition. The American academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rediscovered the text in 1982. Harriet E. Wilson was born into freedom in New Hampshire, orphaned, and entered into indentured servitude until she was eighteen years old.

After the death of her child, who was born out of wedlock, Mag Smith moves away seeking a place where she is unknown. Upon settling in her new town she meets Jim, a black man who falls in love with her. Mag is not interested in Jim when she first meets him, but eventually, they marry; they have a son, Jake, and a daughter they name Frado. Mag soon is widowed when Jim dies from an illness, and she needs to provide for her children. She then marries a business partner of Jim’s, Seth, who helps support the family. When it becomes clear that they cannot take care of both of the children, Seth convinces Mag to send Frado to live with a family named Bellmont. Mag agrees, unenthusiastically. Frado is brought to the Bellmonts and is told, falsely, that Mag will be coming back for her later that day.

After several days go by, Frado and the Bellmonts figure out that Mag is not returning. Mr. Bellmont is a caring man, but his wife is quite the opposite. Their family includes four children, two boys, and two girls. The Bellmonts decide that Frado can remain with them and place her in a separate part of the house, an unfinished room above the kitchen. Mrs. Bellmont puts Frado to work cooking and taking care of household chores. One of the sons, Jack, accepts Frado because of her light skin, while Mary, one of the daughters, does not want her there and wants her sent to the County Home. A year goes by and finds Frado accepting of her fate. She gains a sense of comfort from a dog, Fido, given to her by Jack.

Mary continues to push for Frado’s removal from the family home. Frado is permitted to go to school with Mary. One day on the way home, Mary attempts to push Frado into a stream but slips in herself. Upon returning home, Mary blames Frado, who is whipped by Mrs. Bellmont in spite of Jack’s efforts to stop his mother. Following this incident, Frado runs way, prompting Mr. Bellmont and his sons to go looking for her. When they find her, she tells James, Jack’s brother, that she dislikes God for making her black and the others white. In time, James moves away and his health begins to fail. When he returns home to see his family, Mrs. Bellmont warns Frado not to tell him of beatings she has given her. As James’s health continues to deteriorate, Frado needs to leave to tend to her brother Jake. James, however, asks that she stay with him and he dies.

Frado finds herself confused after the death of James. She feels that she is not worthy of ever entering heaven. Frado turns to Mr. Belmont’s sister, Aunt Abby, for advice. From Aunt Abby, Frado learns about the Bible and with her attends a church meeting. Frado begins to develop a faith in God and a desire to learn the way into heaven. As this is transpiring, Mr. Bellmont becomes more worried about Frado’s health due to repeated beatings she receives from Mrs. Bellmont. He tells Frado to resist the beatings. When Frado stands up to Mrs. Bellmont, who is about to whip her for not fetching firewood as quickly as she wanted her to, it leads Mrs. Bellmont to beat her less often. Meanwhile, the family receives news that Mary has died. Frado thinks about escaping but knowing that she really does not have any options, decides that she will wait until she is eighteen.

Once Frado reaches eighteen, it is arranged for her to do sewing work for a family named Moore. Frado’s health begins to decline, and she is not able to continue her work. She is sent to reside at a shelter where she lives for two years under the care of a pair of older women. She finds work making bonnets with a woman in Massachusetts. Subsequent events include Frado marrying a fugitive slave who is frequently absent working for the abolitionists and does not provide for her, Frado’s having their child, and the death of Frado’s husband. As the story ends, Frado has moved from place to place to find ways to support herself and becomes a symbol of the power of the human spirit.