Recalibration: On Realizing I Will Be a Black Girl in New Hampshire

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I never thought I’d be where I am.  In fact, I didn’t decide until decision day of my senior year, after weeks of deliberation, that I would attend Dartmouth College in the fall. Dartmouth is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, a state which is approximately eight hours away from my home in Maryland, and notably, a lot whiter, too.  As of the 2010 Census, New Hampshire was 93.9% white, with a Black population of a grand 1.1%.

As one might expect, I struggled with the notion of moving to a state where my mere presence would be an outlier, an invitation for stares and questions, and at worst, violence. I did not know what it meant to be Black in an area so seemingly unfamiliar with Black people. I worried that my Blackness would conflict with the quaint homogeneity of the Upper Valley, and that subsequently, I would feel like an alien in my new home long after freshman orientation.

This feeling still looms over me, eight weeks into my fall term, especially when I go off campus and am reminded that the cultivated and manufactured diversity present on campus does not translate to the area at large. In these moments, I look to history to find myself in spaces where I rarely see my own reflection. History has long been a friend of mine, not because it is kind but because it has provided me with a sense of connection and belonging even when it feels like those things do not exist. History helped me find Harriet Wilson.

Recalibration: On Realizing I Will Be a Black Girl in New Hampshire| blackpraxis.com
Recalibration: On Realizing I Will Be a Black Girl in New Hampshire| blackpraxis.com

Harriet Wilson is considered to be the first Black novelist of any gender to be published in North America. She was born a “free Negro” in Milford, New Hampshire in the early 19th century. In 1859, she published her autobiographical novel Our Nig, or Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her story and her work are what allowed me to understand what it has meant to be a Black woman in New Hampshire in the past, and what that means for me today.

Born on March 15, 1825, to an Irish washerwoman and an African-American hooper, Harriet Adams was a free person of color in New Hampshire, forty years before the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, abolishing slavery in Southern U.S. states. Following her father’s death, she was abandoned by her mother and bound to servitude as an orphan by the courts of New Hampshire, to provide labor for a local family as an indentured servant until she was 18 years old.  In 1851, she married and became, as she is most popularly known, Harriet Wilson.

In her book, she tells the story of a Black servant girl who is abused physically and mentally by the white family she works for and lives with from the ages of six to eighteen. It is believed by scholars, P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts, that Harriet’s own experiences as an indentured servant were the primary inspiration for the accounts of abuse in the novel. In fact, the book’s preface merges the main character, Frado, and Wilson together as one and the same. It is revealed here, that the novel was written as a plea to assist Wilson/Frado in acquiring the finances necessary to support herself and her sick child.

With her son’s future in mind, she published her account of the world as a free Black woman in New Hampshire.

Harriet shared and excavated the most painful parts of her story in the hopes of gaining support from northern whites who’d taken special interest in the stories of ex-slaves and runaways, spreading them to promote the abolitionists effort. But, Harriet’s work was different, dedicated to “showing that the slavery’s shadows fall even [in the North].” Her book was in opposition to abolitionist attempts to center all anti-slavery critique on the South. She emphasized the sufferings of free Blacks throughout the North, refusing to let the region be absolved of its own racist crimes.

Writer, Eric Gardner suggests in his work "This Attempt of Their Sister: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig from Printer to Readers,” that Harriet’s work may have been intentionally omitted from popular readership for her open reference to Northern racism and white women’s unique part in racist violence against Black people, and Black women, in particular. Harriet’s work was radical in that it challenged even those who considered themselves progressive on issues of race. Freedom itself is questioned in her work, nothing is off the table.

Ultimately, it could be said that she was too honest and critical for the supposed radicals of her time. Whether or not her work was widely received in her lifetime, her impact and space in the history of New Hampshire remains as a testament to the physical and emotional labor Black women have done in this country to protect and provide for ourselves and others. For this reason, Harriet’s work did not remove my concerns about being Black in New Hampshire, but rather, introduced me to a legacy of resistance that I never knew existed, and for that I am grateful to her and countless others.