Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Play(writing) and En(acting) Consciousness: Theater as Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Play(writing) and En(acting) Consciousness: Theater as Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig

Article excerpt

White female South African: I can remember it as if it happened yesterday, the day they bulldozed my maidservant's shack, destroyed all of her property, and separated her from her children--all of this on a night that I had planned a formal dinner for thirty. Oh, how I cried! How many girls would I have to interview before I'd find another Jacinta?

As they took Jacinta away kicking and struggling, I felt as if the police were pulling me away kicking and struggling. I had to do something, so I cried, and I took a picture for my little scrapbook of anguish.

After the police had gone, I noticed that they had trampled over a bed of geraniums that I had been pruning since I was a child. I looked down at those flowers, and I saw the pain of Black South Africa in all of those broken stems and wounded petals. I wept until I realized they were perennials and would be back again next summer.

Yes, with Jacinta gone, life just wasn't the same in Johannesburg. And did I mention that I wept? And as the condition of my household disintegrated without Jacinta, I began to understand what it must be like to live in a Black South African re-location camp.

Yes, as I attempted to polish my own silver, my arms began to ache, and I could feel what it must be like to toil long, arduous hours in the White South African diamond mines. It was at this point that I decided that Jacinta simply had to be liberated before my entire household rotted from within, the same way minority rule was rotting my continent. No one could stop me now. I could write a letter to President de Klerk. I wrote and I cried. And I cried and I wrote. And I wrote and I cried. Who knows? One day I may even mail it.

Narrator: My Dark Conscience--a true story about the pain of watching someone else suffer and wanting to do something about it but not really wanting to get involved and then feeling a little guilty about it. My Dark Conscience--a film that could well be coming to a theater near you.

--My Dark Conscience" In Living Color (Season 2, Episode 15), 1991.

Introduction

Not unlike the above comedic (melo)dramatic monologue performed quite deliberately by a White female cast member to attack and parody well-intentioned, seemingly sympathetic White South Africans who refused to act with urgency in dismantling the 1948-1994 apartheid system of oppression for Black South Africans, Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story House, North, Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859) stages such blatant hypocrisy and inaction on the part of sympathetic but inherently racist and sexist White northern abolitionists. Clearly, Wilson's overarching rhetorical strategy conjoins primarily White female-authored genre of sentimental fiction characterized by invalids, lingering sicknesses, prolonged deathbed wishes, and hyperbolic emotional flourishes and the predominantly Black male-authored slave narrative genre with its characteristic episodic and linear journeying toward selfhood, its celebration of masculine physical prowess, and its emotionally solicitous (re)creations of female slave physical violation. Within this arena of attention to this novel, Tate (1989) sees Our Nig as one of many "nineteenth-century Black women's sentimental narratives [that] represent the inalienable rights of Black people as the consummated rights of families ... [and] an emphatic valorization of marriage and domestic idealism" (126). Doriani (1991) examines Harriet Jacobs's and Harriet Wilson's efforts to negotiate Black female self-definition through typically masculinist narrative structures. Gates (1978) underscores the blatant tensions between fiction and autobiography specifically for this Black woman writer, and Gardner (1993) thoughtfully considers the book's publishing history to conclude that the reading audience most likely to have received Wilson's book were "primarily White, middle-class readers . …

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