Our Nig Wiki
Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
Written by Harriet E. Wilson
The first half:
Plot: Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet Wilson, is an autobiographically-based tale of a young mulatto girl, Frado, who is abandoned by her socially-shamed white mother when her black father dies. Wilson provides a bit of a back-story, telling of Mag’s (her mother) disgrace – a wealthy suitor, the father of her unborn child, ditches her and leaves her to fend for herself; her child dies during birth – and how it sours her disposition into that of an uncaring shrew and drives her to marry and reproduce with a generous, caring African American man, Jim. Mag is forever ashamed of this final step into social rejection. After Jim dies, Mag pairs up with his business partner, Seth. When they are no longer able to support their entire group, Seth and Mag guiltlessly leave Frado with the tyrannical Mrs. Bellmont and never return.
Frado’s life is riddled with misfortune. As soon as she arrives at the Bellmont’s residence, she is met with cruelty and racial slurs. We find Mrs. Bellmont and her youngest daughter, Mary, to be of the same mind and manner: they are both rude, insensitive, racist, and very harsh on the endearing Frado. Mr. Bellmont, Jack, and Jane are the more pleasant members of the family, though all are limited in their ability to shield her. Mr. Bellmont is timid, and does not like to test his word against Mrs. Bellmont’s often. Jack is young, and is often gone, leaving Frado vulnerable. Jane, unfortunately, is an invalid, and is not strong enough to stand up to her mother.
At a very young age, Frado is committed to servitude in the Bellmont residence. They call her “Nig”, or “nigger” and beat her almost daily. The story is interesting because it shows a young ‘free’ half-white/half-black girl struggling with a horrid family, who still is upbeat, interesting, and spunky. Frado overcomes this submissive environment to develop her own personality. A few years after she arrives, she is sent to school – which Mary greatly objects to – and begins to grow as a person. She finds her friends in Jack, Jane, James (when she meets him), Aunt Abby (the kind sister of Mr. Bellmont), and the dog that Jack gets her, Fido.
Eventually, Frado meets James, the eldest Bellmont son. He is a source of comfort and safety to her and he promises that he will return so that he may retrieve her and take her away with him. This notion is a great source of comfort to Frado, and it helps her when James, and then Jack, and eventually even Jane leave. She becomes attached to her dog, Fido, as Mrs. Bellmont continues to abuse her. At this point, both James (far away) and Frado fall under the weather, and it begins to look like James may not be able to save her the way Frado wishes for, as his health dwindles, though she holds onto the hope that he will take her away with him one day.
Frado: The main character; she is a pretty mulatto girl with a defiant personality. She is a well-developed round character with many facets as to her person. She is the servant to Mrs. Bellmont and endures much abuse in her time there.
Mrs. Bellmont: The tyrannical woman of the house that Frado is left at. She is portrayed as an evil, racist woman with violent tendencies. Her personality does not show any variations; there is no personality behind the cruel actions, and in that she is a relatively flat character.
Mr. Bellmont: Another primarily flat character. He is not mentioned often, but when he does appear, he is either conceding to his wife’s desires or he is challenging them. He provides a counterpart to her absurdity.
Mary: The youngest daughter of the Belmont’s. She is similar to her mother in that she mostly is there for senseless cruelty. At one point, she tries to kill Frado with a knife in her intense anger. She always is trying to get her in trouble and only addresses her as “nigger” or something equally rude.
Jane: The eldest Belmont daughter. She is sickly and ill, though she is pursued by two men and eventually marries. She is very weak and can offer Frado nothing but kind looks and sympathy. She is a kind and concerned individual and evokes a certain amount of sympathy for her situation.
Jack: The younger Belmont son. He is full of life and humor – he makes sure that Mrs. Belmont and Mary don’t beat Frado (at least when he’s around). He eventually leaves to pursue a career, as he is a very intelligent young man. He is about as averagely-developed as the rest of the Belmont family in that his actions are his character, as opposed to him having clear thoughts and a personality.
James: James is the oldest son in their family. He is kind and, like Jack, provides shelter and comfort for Frado. He is the one who offers Frado some sort of way out – a release – in that he wants to take her away. Eventually, he takes after Jane; his health begins to fail, though he still does his best to remain in good humor and an encouragement for Frado.
Mag: Very undeveloped. Mag seems cruel and heartless in her abandonment of her children, and her treatment of them. She calls them “niggers” and has no issue with completely disposing of her children and never seeing them again.
Minor Characters: Susan, George, Jim, Seth, Aunt Abby, Henry. (These characters appear very little and have no character development, or are primarily nonexistant within the story.
Mrs. Belmont & Mary / Frado: There is this surface conflict between the evil Belmont ladies and Frado. They are oppressive and even though Frado is not bound there, they limit her freedom. They parallel the notion of a free black and the continuing reluctance to let them be free by whites, which is a recurring theme.
Mrs. Belmont / Mr. Belmont: The natural man vs. woman issue appears here. Sometimes she takes precedence, and sometimes he challenges her word – usually when it comes to Frado’s well-being.
Mrs. Belmont / Jane: There is the struggle here between the two men who are suiting James. Mrs. Belmont wants her to pick the well-to-do, wealthy man, where she is more interested in the better man. Mr. Belmont steps in and allows the weak-spirited Jane to achieve happiness in at least that respect.
Freedom: There is an underlying notion of freedom. The book itself is called the “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black”, though Frado is hardly free. She is objectified and treated like scum, just as she would have been as a slave. The conflict exists throughout the first half of the story and, I’m sure, continues through to the end. There is joy in being free, but I don’t think that Frado ever really experiences it.
Harriet Wilson actually has a very readable writing style. It is very informal, but there is a sense of realness to it – the simplicity makes it seem authentic (which it is, because it’s based in truth). There is a certain artistic quality to her writing, as well as a certain amount of straightforwardness. She goes from subject to subject, action to action, flawlessly, and it is very smooth.
From what has happened so far, I would guess that James’ health will continue to diminish, and Frado’s situation will get worse. I think that, at some point, she will leave the Belmont’s, and it will seem good, but her life will continue descending into misery. I base this on the fact that every time something good comes into her life, it is taken from her and she is plunged into misfortune. I also think that religeon will come to play a life in her life, seeing as the following chapter is called "Spiritual Condition of Nig". I think that it will be a source of comfort to her as all physical forms of comfort are taken from her. I think that it will inspire strength in her, like it does in many. I am curious as to her eventual outcome.
By: Chelsea McLuen