What Do We Want From Harriet Wilson?
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The challenge (and promise) of epistemic identification within nineteenth-century American literature might be summed up in a single question about a single author: what do critics want from Harriet Wilson? If the voluminous scholarship produced over the past quarter-century on Wilson’s 1859 novel Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is any indication, the answer, in short, is everything. Celebrated variously, and often simultaneously, as a “missing link” in the development of the African American literary tradition, as an early declaration of black feminist thought, as a polemic against racism, and as an ideological critique of American democracy, Wilson’s book faces enormous literary and cultural demands.1 Yet such expectations are understandable. Because Our Nig is one of the most powerful early texts by a black female author, scholars committed to antiracist and feminist inquiry have justifiably claimed the book as a crucial representation of its era’s ideological and social concerns. Indeed, Wilson’s text appears to possess precisely what critics would most desire from a seminal archetype of minority discourse in the antebellum United States: it is smart, it is subversive, and it is very angry.
KeywordsPersonal Identity Cultural Analysis Identity Category Early Declaration White Folk
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