- Bringing Down the HouseThe Trickster’s Signifying on Victimization in Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig
Her [Frado’s] winter over-dress was a cast-off overcoat, once worn by Jack, and a sun-bonnet. It was a source of great merriment to the scholars, but Nig’s retorts were so mirthful, and their satisfaction so evident in attributing the selection to “Old Granny Bellmont,” that it was not painful to Nig or pleasurable to Mary [Mrs. Bellmont’s daughter]. Her jollity was not to be quenched by whipping or scolding. In Mrs. Bellmont’s presence she was under restraint; but in the kitchen, and among her schoolmates, the pent up fires burst forth. She was ever at some sly prank when unseen by her teacher, in school hours; not unfrequently some outburst of merriment, of which she was the original, was charged upon some innocent mate, and punishment inflicted which she merited.—Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig
By the time that Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig in the late 1850s, representations of black female victimization had already become fully cemented in narrative form. In the antislavery narratives of the 1840s and 1850s in particular, white women and black men began to attack slavery by exposing the heterosexual sadism structuring it. A victimized image of a black woman was central to this discourse. As many critics, including Hazel Carby, Margaret M. R. Kellow, Cynthia J. Davis, and Frances Smith Foster have convincingly argued, African American women have been repeatedly represented in both black men’s and white women’s anti-slavery narratives as the object of terrific abuse, while rarely, if ever, being imaged as the agents of their own destiny.1 Taken together, these critics show that the victimized image of black women gains more popularity in the 1840s and 1850s. At this time, black men and white women calcify a shared narrative tactic of situating the black woman character within a perverse heterosexual triangle. In this structure, the white, usually married, man perversely desires to merge with and yet simultaneously destroy the black woman. He pursues his desire despite the black woman’s resistance, his wife’s despair, and/or the black male beloved’s protests.
Unfortunately, while this rhetorical ploy captured the truth of the sexual abuse leveled at black women, it concomitantly reduced the black woman’s role within the triangle to that of sexual victim. This limited role failed to image what bell hooks calls “radical black female subjectivity,” a “wildness” and rebellion on the part of black women (49). Instead, overpowered by her assailant, the African American female character devolves [End Page 440] physically and psychically, if she is not actually killed.2 Viewed as an efficacious critique of slavery at the time, the perverse heterosexual triangle became a fundamental aspect of anti-slavery narrative and seared this image of African American female abjection in the public imagination.
To challenge this popular image, Harriet Wilson revises central facets of the anti-slavery narrative. She takes traditional associations with white men at work in 1840s and 1850s anti-slavery narratives and invests her main two white female characters, Mary and Mrs. Bellmont, with them. Much like the white male characters in the perverse heterosexual triangle, Mary and Mrs. Bellmont are perverse in their treatment of the black woman Frado and in the form their sexual desire takes. But, with a twist, these characters behave sadistically toward Frado and harbor incestuous desire for each other.3 Two years before Harriet Jacobs would characterize Southern white women’s and men’s behavior in slavery as a “cage of obscene birds” (52), Wilson emphasizes the perversity of Northern white women.
This sexualizing and re-gendering of the white women characters within the triangle of desire opens up the meaning of black women. Many critics have pointed out that a binary opposition structured antebellum beliefs about white and black women. In this binary, white women were desexualized and black women hyper-sexualized. White women were seen as prim virgins to black women’s licentious Sapphires. This binary undergoes revision in anti-slavery discourse. Critics such as Frances Smith Foster and Claudia Tate have pointed...