Henry Louis “Skip” Gates is a controversial figure on many accounts.
From his role in the defense of rappers 2 Live Crew to his (to some) questionable record of scholarship to his thin and self-promotional reporting about the family roots of black celebrities like the Rev. T.D. Jakes and Chris Tucker, Gates has come under no end of scrutiny and criticism during his nearly three decades in the public eye.
Whatever one thinks of the rhetorical arrows being hurled at him, one can appreciate his rediscovery of Harriet Wilson’s slender novel Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.
First published in 1859, this largely autobiographical work, which Gates reintroduced for public consumption more than a quarter century ago, tells the story of a mixed race woman born in New Hampshire to a white mother and black father.
Written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, the book recounts the hardships Frado endures during her comparatively short and unhappy life. Her father dies while she is young and her mother abandons her. Her troubles are compounded by the brutal treatment she endures at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont, in whose she lives and who treats her essentially as a slave, her living in the Northeast of the country notwithstanding.
Frado has a brief period in which she attends school, where she endures taunts about her racial complexion from the other students. Even the moments of happiness she achieves temporarily when she marries a black men end when he deserts her, leaving her with a child for whom she cannot provide and from whom she ultimately must undergo a forced separation.
Our Nig is a revealing work on a number of levels.
To begin, it is one of a number of manuscripts Gates came across written in the early part of American history by black owners. Its focus on the experience of northern black also calls attention, as does its inclusion of a racially mixed protagonist-a tradition that Jean Toomer continued with Cane and, more recently, Danzy Senna took up in her impressive debut novel, Caucasia.
The writing is not particularly memorable, and yet one aches for the suffering and abuse to which Frado is subjected. Still, Our Nig is a quick and worthwhile read, and one for which we should be grateful to Gates for its reintroduction.