Play(writing) and En(acting) consciousness: Theater as rhetoric in harriet wilson's Our Nig

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As there has been much critical and scholarly attention to genre fluidity in recent literary discussions over the last few years, I offer here an exploration of rhetorical genre blurring in what is believed to be the first African American novel Our Nig, published in 1859 by Harriet E. Wilson. Primarily, critical attention on this important text has involved either the novel's autobiographical and feminist dimensions or the novel's identity as a hybrid between the Black male-dominated slave narrative and White female-dominated sentimental fiction. While the novel has elements of both of these popular forms, I argue that the narrative is more complicated by Wilson's strategic use of visual aesthetics— lives in motion with characters speaking and moving through a live space as others consciously observe what they do, say, or do not do-the novel is actually a rhetorically staged performance of alleged liberal abolitionists ' ineffectuality and inactivity. The social ills under attack in the novel make it more intellectually complicated and more socially and politically dangerous for its then-anonymous author than for writers straightforwardly critiquing social evils in slave narratives and sentimental fiction. In fact, rather than gently trying to gently coax through rational argument or through heightened emotionalism, Wilson boldly confronts through this trope of the stage the very people who believe themselves committed to the task of emancipating their darker brethren. Examined through the lens of dramatic performance, Wilson's text interrogates various forms of enslavement along gender, race, and economic lines. As well, its focus on Christian hypocrisy is fundamentally connected to the spirituality that extends beyond the racist and sexist dimensions of western Christianity as dramatized in Wilson's allegorical connections. Using allegory and a framework that resembles a morality play, Wilson turns on its head a western patriarchal and often static form to critique racist and sexist western ideologies that restrict spiritual self-actualization for African Americans, for women, and for African American women.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)347-357
Number of pages11
JournalWestern Journal of Black Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies


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