Academic journal article MELUS

Reworking the Conversion Narrative: Race and Christianity in Our Nig

Academic journal article MELUS

Reworking the Conversion Narrative: Race and Christianity in Our Nig

Article excerpt

An early example of an African American novel, and the earliest known novel by an African American woman writer, Harrie E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859) has prompted ongoing excitement among modern scholars. Since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered this text more than a decade ago, contemporary criticism of Our Nig has for the most part linked this autobiographical novel to the nineteenth-century tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel. Wilson's adaptation of the conversion narrative warrants further discussion,(1) however, because it represents a literary experiment more complex than mere imitation or synthesis of popular literary genres. Frado's failed conversion affords Wilson the literary space to undermine prevailing social constructions of Christianity, race, and womanhood. Through Frado's narrative, Wilson demonstrates how Christian doctrine anchors popular notions of womanhood and domesticity, and how these concepts are limited by race and racial signifiers. Though Wilson manipulates well-known trappings of the conversion narrative that date back to the American Puritan tradition, Our Nig tells the story of the heroine's failed initiation into the community of earthly saints. Moreover, Frado's rejection of Christianity's promised eternity demonstrates how race might interrupt the Christian rite of passage for those black candidates who could not resolve the ambiguities of popular racial myths.

In both her worldly and spiritual quests, Frado faces the limitations imposed by race. From the moment Wilson introduces the story of Jim and Mag's union, we begin to see an unsettling vision of Christianity and racial blackness as diametric opposites. "I's black outside, I know,'" Jim tells Mag, "`but I's got a white heart inside'" (12). For Jim, blackness stands in contradistinction to Christian images of goodness; moreover, with the unfolding of Frado's narrative, we become increasingly aware that race stands as an obstacle to her religious conversion as well. Frado's inability to envision black souls as candidates for heaven thwarts her full submission to the conversion process, and her failed religious conversion impels the story's deviation from popular conventions of domestic fiction.

A text that uses the conversion narrative pattern, Our Nig ends as an anti-conversion experience. Unable to dispel inherited social images that equate whiteness with Godliness, the heroine cannot envision blackness in the divine hereafter. In a novel by a black woman writer more than a century after the publication of Our Nig, we witness the kind of narrative that can result when a fictionalized black female heroine successfully resolves the question of race and religious experience. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Celie finds God only after she expels the whiteness that threatens her conversion. Celie shares with Shug her image of God as "big and old and tall and graybearded and white" (176). However, Celie confesses that this vision of God leaves her uncomfortable: "when I think about it, it don't seem quite right. But it all I got" (176). As a confidant and mentor to Celie, Shug explains that "this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed" (177). She then shares with Celie her vision of a God who is found in everything and everyone, and informs Celie that the first step to finding God is to remove "the old white man," in order to see the God who exists everywhere. This transformation is not an easy one. Celie reveals the difficulty in trying to rid oneself of the old white man: "Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head" (179). Again, she reveals the seeming omnipresence of whiteness that makes it so difficult to "chase" away images of whiteness as inherently powerful: "He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. …

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