African Storytellers (Milford, NH - Harriet Wilson)
Throughout the Sahel region of Africa, women have long been the storytellers and weavers-of-history-into-tales told repeatedly over the centuries. The heroines in these tales are resourceful, and intelligent, who may play both the narrator and performer (El-Nour). These stories often brought both memorable events as well as everyday occurrences, social dictates, and cultural mores into the future so people would remember what had occurred in the past.
Harriet Wilson, born in Milford, New Hampshire in 1825 to an Afro-American father and white mother, was just such a person: a storyteller who through her autobiography, became the first published Afro-American author. She narrated her own history in her book Our Nig or Sketches of a Free Black published in 1859 with the hope of earning enough money to keep her and her son, George, alive. After it was published, thought originally to be the work of a white author, it became a controversial story told with an emotional and narrative power that was deemed “unsettling” to many who read it. It wasn’t just read in the United States, but had an international following as well (The Harriet Wilson Project).
What the book reveals is Wilson’s tenacity and drive to survive in spite of the odds. Between the ages of five and six, Harriet was abandoned by her mother and began serving as an indentured servant. She was able to attend school three months each year between 1832 and 1834 in Milford, NH. By the time she reached eighteen, she had taken on several other jobs serving local families, but her health began to fail between 1846 and 1850, when she was listed as a town pauper. In 1851 Harriet married Thomas Wilson in Milford, and by 1852 their son, George, was born at the Hillsborough County Poor Farm, where they were living. Just prior to this, Harriet had a small success when she published her poem, Fading Away, in the local Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper (The Harriet Wilson Project).
Harriet’s husband, Thomas, is said to have died in May of 1853. In 1855, she returned to live at the poor farm while George was sent to live as a foster child with a local family and eventually returned to the poor farm where he died at the age of seven in 1860. Harriet’s health was a continual issue which often left her on the edge of poverty even though she earned a small amount as a seamstress, servant, and seller of hair products throughout New England. Her hair product business began to make money and between 1857 and 1960, it is reported that she became self-sufficient. It was during this period that Our Nig was published. Her later years were spent in and around Boston where she was a lecturer and spiritualist. It is thought that she died in 1900 (The Harriet Wilson Project).
Seventy-four years after Wilson’s book was published, Henry Louis Gates discovered Wilson’s Afro-American heritage, republished the work, pulling it out of obscurity and putting it back on the shelves of contemporary readers (The Black Past). A statue of Wilson now stands in a park in Milford, NH.
El-Nour, Eiman Abbas H. "Not just a pretty face: Women as storytellers and subjects in the folktales of Northern Sudan." Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde 48.2 (2011): 171-185.
The Black Past, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/.
The Harriet Wilson Project. http://www.harrietwilsonproject.net/.