116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

"To Be Something, and to Do Something for Others": Harriet Wilson’s Spiritualist Impulse

Kaitlyn Smith, University of South Carolina

This paper examines the ways in which Harriet Wilson's position as a spiritualist medium, as well as her treatment of religion in her autobiographical novel Our Nig, allowed to to manipulate her role as a disabled African American woman to claim power and respectability for herself. 


Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, one of the earliest African American novels, demonstrates her resourcefulness and creativity as an artist despite a socioeconomic situation that thwarted both her artistic potential and physical health. Recent research has uncovered that Wilson did not, as previously thought, die young and impoverished after the self-publication of her novel, but instead lived on until 1900. During that time, Wilson performed in many roles, including a purveyor of hair products, an amateur writer, and a Spiritualist medium. Wilson enjoyed a certain amount of success in Boston Spiritualist circles, and much of the evidence of her continued life after Our Nig comes from the Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light.1 Even this scarce evidence reveals that Wilson was exceedingly talented at using any available tools to lift herself from a life of sickness, poverty, and social exclusion. Spiritualism was perhaps the most multifaceted of those tools—one that may have brought her spiritual as well as social power and provided a stage upon which she could challenge the 19th-century ideals of respectability and domesticity and claim them as her own. Although a detailed account of Wilson’s life may never be available, remnants of her presence in Spiritualist newspapers and close reading of her autobiographical novel reveal the ways in which Spiritualism aided in Wilson’s self-expression, served her personal and political needs, and allowed her to access her pre-existing spiritual sensitivity. This essay focuses on Wilson’s mediumship, which has largely been seen by critics such as R.J. Ellis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as a performance on Wilson’s part, and considers the ways in which earnest belief and performative social navigation may have been at work in Wilson’s life. It also considers the engagement of Wilson’s young, autobiographical heroine Frado with traditional Christianity, and it traces the ways in which Wilson’s Spiritualist impulse was already present in her authorship before her involvement with the religion. Finally, I argue that her mediumship is most important because it illuminates her power and agency as an African American woman who was poor and disabled, and that ultimately there can be little distinction between earnest belief and performance in the arena of 19th-century Spiritualism. Spiritualism and the cultural shifts surrounding it provided a healing alternative to white supremacist Christianity and way for Harriet Wilson to harness her internal strength and counteract typical narratives of ability, domesticity, and whiteness that were responsible for the abuse she faced in her autobiographical work Our Nig.