- Staging Enfleshment: Toward Lines of Flight in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
Harriet E. Wilson wrote Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black as an “experiment,” hoping she would earn enough money to retrieve her son from the county pauper farm (4). The resulting text is a literary rendition of Wilson’s experience as a child servant for a wealthy white family in Milford, New Hampshire. Her child persona, Frado, is abandoned to the Bellmont family at the age of six, and for the next thirteen years her flesh is lacerated by frequent beatings, her youthful vigor siphoned into labor sufficient for three people, and her health deteriorated through the perpetual denial of nourishment. These are habituated practices of gratuitous violence, meaning that they are not contingent on Frado’s behavior but instead stem from the Bellmonts’ psychic and material needs.1 Such violence leaves “hieroglyphics” on her flesh and psyche: a lifetime of infirmities that mark the discursive and material processes by which the Bellmonts acquire and anchor their sense of being in the world as white and bourgeois bodies (Spillers 67).2
Henry Louis Gates Jr. found Our Nig in a bookstore in the early 1980s and realized that this unknown text disrupted the gender and geographical parameters of the Black canon, which at the time was defined by reform literature, Black male autobiographies, and tales of southern cruelty. As Gates intuited, Our Nig diverts from all these traditions in significant ways: it does not explicitly mention politics, takes place in New Hampshire, and is written by a Black, working-class woman. Most important to my reading is the fact that Wilson eschews advocating for reform in favor of staging enfleshment as a constitutive process: Frado is rendered fungible flesh through gratuitous violence in order for the non-Black characters to acquire their racial and class status. I draw this taxonomy—flesh, fungible, gratuitous—from Black studies [End Page 189] scholarship, most notably that of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Frank B. Wilderson III, all of whom insist that understanding the violence of anti-Blackness requires different frameworks from those we get from Marxist labor theory. My reading of Wilson is especially indebted to Spillers, who theorizes “flesh” as a captive structural position defined by woundedness and distinct from the liberated body (Spillers 67). I borrow the cognate “enfleshment” from Alexander Weheliye, who expands Spillers’s concept in order to describe a process of racialization-as-wounding that occurs at the intersection of multiple axes of power.3 Sentient beings who structurally inhabit the position of flesh are fungible, meaning that they embody the “interchangeability and replaceability” of a commodity and are thus “an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values” (Hartman, Scenes 21). As an open and malleable space for manifesting the Bellmonts’ needs, Frado is materially and figuratively valuable to them in a variety of ways. This essay extends the economic notion of fungibility to describe how Frado also functions as a receptacle into which the Bellmonts project their ontological anxieties. In this way she is rendered psychologically valuable. Collectively, fungibility, gratuitous violence, and enfleshment describe the specific ways Frado’s flesh is made elastically usable.
Flesh—and by extension enfleshment—has been the site of a dual theoretical impulse. On the one hand, the “seared, divided, ripped-apartness” of flesh marks its distance and distinction from the liberated body, which is structurally whole (Spillers 67). On the other hand, this structural space of privation and civic exclusion doubles as an arena of possibility, wherein Black beings can create forms of sociality, intimacy, and interiority that depart from normative formulations. Fred Moten, for example, refigures this structural location as a “break,” a performative “irruption” and “dispossessive force” that pressures the coherence of the white subject (1). From within this cut, “objects can and do” speak, but in a phonic register (that is, one entailing “speech sounds”) that simultaneously critiques value, private property, and the sign (1, 12). For Weheliye, the violence that generates flesh as social death “can never annihilate . . . lines of...