Harriet E. Wilson could be my distant cousin!

Contributed by Alicia Nimonkar,  Editor and Writer with Accepted.com, Certified Trainer with Equilibrium Dynamics

I recently received the results of a DNA test I took for health reasons.  While our family knew that we had Native American ancestors, I was surprised and pleased to learn that we also have West African ancestors! 

I have identified as Caucasian most of my life since we are from mostly European ethnicities. However, I have also spent much of my professional life working towards social justice.  To discover that I have African American cousins feels like a gift—especially in an era that has seen the first person of color be President of the United States!  In embracing both the joy and the pain of membership in a vibrant community that is still struggling to achieve equality, I am integrating a whole new aspect of my identity.

I am experiencing in a new way how we are all so much more connected than we can even imagine, as well as unique and diverse.  This new knowledge of my heritage strengthens my sense of responsibility to continue doing my part to create a community that values all perspectives and inspires everyone to achieve their full potential.

The timing is great. Serendipitously, I have been learning even more this year about the African American community. Last semester, I took a graduate level literature course on American Romanticism.  We studied authors, from the popular poets, Poe and Dickinson to Melville, Stowe, Frederick Douglas, who have come to represent this time period in American Lit.

To learn more about Frederick Douglas while reading his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, I visited the African American Museum in Boston and the African Meeting House where he gave speeches opposing the Fugitive Slave Law that was passed in 1850.  When Toni Morrison, one of the greatest living American writers, came to town, I was first in line for her first lecture.  As the course progressed, I wrote a short paper on one of the three African American characters in Moby Dick, Pip, the cabin boy (who is arguably one of the most important characters in the book).

Of all the texts required for the course, there was only one that I had not encountered before—Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.  After reading Harriet E. Wilson’s book, I chose to focus on it for my final paper.  I was moved by the suffering and the strength of the author.  She displays a sophisticated knowledge of the literary genres of her time in employing aspects of each one before the narrative dissolves into a genuine plea for help. 

Wilson’s husband died a year after their son was born—she struggled as a single parent to support her son as a free Black woman living in the North.  She was forced to place him in foster care when he was two years old.  She wrote Our Nig to raise the funds to get him back.  The book was unsuccessful because it represented an unpopular perspective—she exposed the racism of the North. 

At seven years and eight months old, her son, George Mason Wilson, died in foster care.  I cannot even imagine the heart break that Wilson must have experienced in losing her son this way—caught in a low power double bind in the midst of such overwhelming racism.

In my research, I came across a note about the location of her grave in Quincy, Massachusetts.  With a little bit of sleuthing, I was able to find her final resting place!  Despite the fact that her book is considered to be the first novel written by an African American woman, there was only her name on her grave stone—no mention of the fact that she is considered to be “one of the most important African American writers of the mid-nineteenth century” (P. Gabrielle Foreman).  

To show my respect, I brought a copy of her book to her gravesite.  I imagined what her reaction would be if she could know what a success her book had become—though it didn’t happen fast enough to save her son.  I left a pencil on her grave—from one writer to another.  I savored the opportunity to honor her struggle in my final paper.

Now, several months after the class has ended and with my new identity, I wonder who my African American ancestors were.  What were their lives like?  I wonder what George Mason Wilson would have done with his life had his mother and society been able to support his growth to manhood? Did I lose a cousin?  

|| December 12, 2016