Richard Wright

Richard Wright photographed in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten Richard Wright photographed in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten

Notable works

Uncle Tom's ChildrenNative SonBlack BoyThe Outsider

Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was an African-American author, poet, essayist, short story writer.  Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially those involving the plight of African-Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.  His work helped redefine discussions of race relations in America in the mid-20th century.

Wright was born Richard Nathaniel Wright on Rucker's Plantation, between Roxie and Natchez, Mississippi, the son of Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson, a schoolteacher.  When Wright was five, his father left the family and his mother was forced to take domestic jobs away from the house. Wright and his brother spent a period at an orphanage.  Around 1920 Ella Wright became a paralytic, and the family moved from Natchez to Jackson, then to Elaine, Arkansas, and back to Jackson to live with Wright's maternal grandparents, who were restrictive Seventh-day Adventists.

Wright lived with his maternal grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi from early 1920 until late 1925.  Here he felt stifled by his aunt and grandmother, who tried to force him to pray that he might find God.  He later threatened to leave home because Grandmother Wilson refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath.  Early strife with his aunt and grandmother left him with a permanent, uncompromising hostility toward religious solutions to everyday problems.

 Richard Wright with his son in Memphis Tennessee

Richard Wright, with his son in Memphis Tennessee (courtesy Ed Clark/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) 

Wright moved from school to school, graduating from the ninth grade at the Smith Robertson Junior High School in Jackson as the class valedictorian in June 1925.  Determined not to be called an Uncle Tom, he refused to deliver the principal's carefully prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officials.  He finally convinced the black administrators to let him read a compromised version of what he had written.  In September of the same year, Wright registered for mathematics, English, and history courses at the new Lanier High School in Jackson, but had to stop attending classes after a few weeks of irregular attendance because he needed to earn money for family expenses.  

Wright had published his first short story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," in three parts in the Southern Register (a local black newspaper) in 1924 but no copies survived.  His staunchly religious grandmother Margaret Bolden Wilson, kept books out of the house and thought fiction was the work of the devil. Wright kept any aspirations he had to be a writer to himself after his first experience with publication.

While in Memphis he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy and for an optical company. He began to read contemporary American literature as well as commentary by H. L. Mencken, which struck him with particular force.  As Wright reveals in his autobiography “Black Boy”, he borrowed the library card of an Irish co-worker and forged notes to the librarian so he could read: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?" Determined to leave the South before he would overstep the bounds of Jim Crow restrictions on blacks, Wright took the train to Chicago in December 1927

Chicago

Richard Wright Chicago circa 1928 Richard Wright, Chicago circa 1928

Wright moved to Chicago in 1927.  After finally securing employment as a postal clerk, he read other writers and studied their styles during his time off.  When his job at the post office was eliminated by Hoover's policies of the Great Depression, he was forced to go on relief in 1931.  In 1932, he began attending meetings of the John Reed Club.  As the club was dominated by the Communist Party, Wright established a relationship with a number of party members.  Especially interested in the literary contacts made at the meetings, Wright formally joined the Communist Party in late 1933 and as a revolutionary poet, he wrote numerous proletarian poems ("I Have Seen Black Hands", "We of the Streets", "Red Leaves of Red Books", for example) for The New Masses  and other left-wing periodicals. 

By 1935, Wright had completed his first novel, “Cesspool”, published as “Lawd Today” (1963), and in January 1936 his story "Big Boy Leaves Home" was accepted for publication in New Caravan.  In February, he began working with the National Negro Congress, and in April he chaired the South Side Writers' Group, whose membership included Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker.  Wright submitted some of his critical essays and poetry to the group for criticism and read aloud some of his short stories.  In 1936, he was also revising “Cesspool”.  Through the club, he edited "Left Front", a magazine that the Communist Party shut down in 1937, despite Wright's repeated protests. 

 A Young Richard Wright

 A Young Richard Wright 

Throughout this period, Wright also contributed to "The New Masses Magazine".  While he was at first pleased by positive relations with white Communists in Chicago, he was later humiliated in New York City by some who rescinded an offer to find housing for Wright because of his race.  To make matters worse, some black Communists denounced the articulate, polished Wright as a bourgeois intellectual, assuming he was well educated and overly assimilated into white society.  However, he was largely autodidactic, having been forced to end his public education after the completion of grammar school.

Wright's insistence that young communist writers be given space to cultivate their talents and his working relationship with a black nationalist communist led to a public falling out with the party and the leading African-American communist Buddy Nealson.  Wright was threatened at knife point by fellow-traveler coworkers, denounced as a Trotskyite in the street by strikers, and physically assaulted by former comrades when he tried to join them during the 1936 May Day march

New York

In 1937, Richard Wright moved to New York, where he forged new ties with Communist Party members there after getting established.  He worked on the WPA Writers' Project guidebook to the city, New York Panorama (1938), and wrote the book's essay on Harlem.  Wright became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker.  He was happy that during his first year in New York, all of his activities involved writing of some kind.  In the summer and fall he wrote over two hundred articles for the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine, "New Challenge".  The year was also a landmark for Wright because he met and developed a friendship with Ralph Ellison that would last for years, and he learned that he would receive the Story magazine first prize of five hundred dollars for his short story "Fire and Cloud".  Harper's published this collection including "Fire and Cloud," "Long Black Song," "Down by the Riverside," and "Big Boy Leaves Home".  In 1940 the story "Bright and Morning Star" was added, and the book was reissued

After Wright received the Story magazine prize in early 1938, he shelved his manuscript of “Lawd Today” and dismissed his literary agent, John Troustine.  He hired Paul Reynolds, the well-known agent of Paul Laurence Dunbar, to represent him.  Meanwhile, the Story Press offered Harper all of Wright's prize-entry stories for a book, and Harper agreed to publish them.

 Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Wright gained national attention for the collection of four short stories titled “Uncle Tom's Children” (1938).  He based some stories on lynching in the Deep South. The publication and favorable reception of “Uncle Tom's Children” improved Wright's status with the Communist party and enabled him to establish a reasonable degree of financial stability.  He was appointed to the editorial board of New Masses, and Granville Hicks, prominent literary critic and Communist sympathizer, introduced him at leftist teas in Boston.  By May 6, 1938 excellent sales had provided him with enough money to move to Harlem, where he began writing “Native Son” (1940).  After “Uncle Tom's Children”, Wright declared in "How Bigger Was Born" that he needed to write a book that bankers' daughters would not be able to "read and feel good about," that would "be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears." Native Son was uncompromising.

The collection also earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete “Native Son”.  It was selected by the Book of the Month Club as its first book by an African-American author.  The lead character, Bigger Thomas, represented the limitations that society placed on African Americans as he could only gain his own agency and self-knowledge by committing heinous acts.

Wright was criticized for his works' concentration on violence.  In the case of “Native Son”, people complained that he portrayed a black man in ways that seemed to confirm whites' worst fears.  The period following publication of “Native Son” was a busy time for Wright.  In July 1940 he went to Chicago to do research for a folk history of blacks to accompany photographs selected by Edwin Rosskam.  While in Chicago he visited the American Negro Exhibition with Langston HughesArna Bontemps and Claude McKay.

He then went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he and Paul Green collaborated on a dramatic version of “Native Son”.  In January 1941 Wright received the prestigious Spingarn Medal for noteworthy achievement by a black.  “Native Son” opened on Broadway, with Orson Welles as director, to generally favorable reviews in March 1941.  A volume of photographs almost completely drawn from the files of the Farm Security Administration (with text by Wright), “Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States” was published in October 1941 to wide critical acclaim.

Wright's semi-autobiographical “Black Boy” (1945) described his early life from Roxie through his move to Chicago, his clashes with his Seventh-day Adventist family, his troubles with white employers, and his social isolation.  “American Hunger”, published posthumously in 1977, was originally intended as the second volume of “Black Boy”.  The Library of America edition restored it to that form.

This book detailed Wright's involvement with the John Reed Clubs and the Communist Party, which he left in 1942.  The book implied he left earlier but his withdrawal was not made public until 1944.  In the volumes' restored form, the diptych structure compares the certainties and intolerance of organized communism, the "bourgeois" books, and condemned members with similar qualities to fundamentalist organized religion.  Wright disapproved of the purges in the Soviet Union.  Nevertheless, Wright continued to believe in far-left democratic solutions to political problems.

A historic marker in Natchez Mississippi commemorating Richard Wright who was born near Natchez A historic marker in Natchez, Mississippi, commemorating Richard Wright, who was born near Natchez.

Paris

Wright moved to Paris in 1946, and became a permanent American expatriate.  He had helped found "Présence Africaine" with Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, and Alioune Diop during 1946-1948.  In Paris, he became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.   His Existentialist phase was depicted in his second novel, “The Outsider” (1953), which described an African-American character's involvement with the Communist Party in New York.  He also was friends with fellow expatriate writers Chester Himes and James Baldwin.  That year Wright helped James Baldwin win a fellowship, though the relationship with the latter ended in acrimony after Baldwin published his essay “Everybody's Protest Novel” (collected in “Notes of a Native Son”), in which he criticized Wright's stereotypical portrayal of Bigger Thomas.

 Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1938

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1938

In 1954 he published a minor novel, “Savage Holiday”.  After becoming a French citizen in 1947, Wright continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa.  These experiences were the basis of numerous nonfiction works.  In 1949, Wright contributed to the anti-communist anthology “The God That Failed”; his essay had been published in the Atlantic Monthly three years earlier and was derived from the unpublished portion of “Black Boy”. He was invited to join the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which he rejected, correctly suspecting that it had connections with the CIA.  The CIA and FBI had Wright under surveillance starting in 1943.  Due to McCarthyism, Wright was blacklisted by Hollywood movie studio executives in the 1950s, but in 1950, he starred as the teenager Bigger Thomas (Wright was 42) in an Argentinian film version of “Native Son”.

Richard Wright Paris 1949

Richard Wright, Paris 1949

In mid-1953, Wright traveled to the Gold Coast, where Kwame Nkrumah was leading the country to independence from British rule.  Before Wright returned to Paris, he gave a confidential report to the United States consulate in Accra on some of the things he had learned about Nkrumah and his political party.  After he returned to Paris he met twice with an officer from the U.S. Department of State.  The officer's report includes what Wright had learned from Nkrumah advisor George Padmore about Nkrumah's plans for the "Gold Coast" after its independence (as Ghana).  Padmore, a Trinidadian living in London, believed Wright to be a good friend, as his many letters in the Wright papers at Yale's Beinecke Library attest, and their correspondence continued.  Wright's book on his journey, Black Power, was published in in 1954.  Its London publisher was also Padmore's publisher, Dennis Dobson.  In addition to whatever political motivations Wright had for reporting to American officials, he was in the uncomfortable position of an American who did not want to go back to the United States yet needed to have his passport renewed.  According to Wright biographer Addison Gayle, just a few months later Wright answered questions at the American embassy in Paris about people he had met in the Communist Party who were at this point being prosecuted under the Smith Act

Richard Wright  Richard Wright

Exploring the reasons Wright appeared to have little to say about the civil rights movement unfolding in the United States in the 1950s, historian Carol Polsgrove has gathered evidence of what his fellow writer Chester Himes called the "extraordinary pressure" Wright was under not to write about the American scene.  Even Ebony magazine delayed publishing his essay, "I Choose Exile" until he suggested it would be better to publish it in a white periodical, "since a white periodical would be less vulnerable to accusations of disloyalty."  He thought the Atlantic Monthly was interested, but in the end, the piece went unpublished. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author) - cite_note-11.

In 1955, Wright visited Indonesia for the Bandung Conference and recorded his observations in “The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference”.  Wright was upbeat about the possibilities posed by this meeting between recently oppressed nations.

Other works by Richard Wright included “White Man, Listen!” (1957); a novel “The Long Dream” in 1958; as well as a collection of short stories, “Eight Men”, published in 1961, shortly after his death.  His works primarily dealt with the poverty, anger, and the protests of northern and southern urban black Americans.  His agent, Paul Reynolds sent overwhelmingly negative criticism of Wright's four-hundred page "Island of Hallucinations" manuscript in February 1959.  Despite that, in March Wright outlined a novel in which Fish was to be liberated from his racial conditioning and become a dominating character.  By May 1959, Wright wanted to leave Paris and live in London.  He felt French politics had become increasingly submissive to American pressure.  The peaceful Parisian atmosphere he had enjoyed had been shattered by quarrels and attacks instigated by enemies of the expatriate black writers.  The writers were turning on each other and betrayals were everywhere with "L'affaire Gibson" having exposed the fissures within the community.

 Richard Wright Normandy circa 1959

Richard Wright, Normandy, circa 1959

On June 26, 1959, after a party marking the French publication of “White Man, Listen!” Wright became ill, victim of a virulent attack of amoebic dysentery probably contracted during his stay on the Gold Coast.  By November 1959 his wife had found a London apartment, but Wright's illness and "four hassles in twelve days" with British immigration officials ended his desire to live in England.

On February 19, 1960 Wright learned from Reynolds that the New York premiere of the stage adaptation of “The Long Dream” received such bad reviews that the adapter, Ketti Frings, had decided to cancel further performances.  Meanwhile, Wright was running into additional problems trying to get “The Long Dream” published in France.  These setbacks prevented his finishing revisions of “Island of Hallucinations”, which he needed to get a commitment from Doubleday.

Richard Wright Paris 1948 Richard Wright, Paris 1948

In June 1960, Wright recorded a series of discussions for French radio dealing primarily with his books and literary career.  He also covered the racial situation in the United States and the world, and specifically denounced American policy in Africa.  In late September, to cover extra expenses for his daughter Julia's move from London to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, Wright wrote blurbs for record jackets for Nicole Barclay, director of the largest record company in Paris.  In spite of his financial straits, Wright refused to compromise his principles.  He declined to participate in a series of programs for Canadian radio because he suspected American control.  For the same reason, Wright rejected an invitation from the "Congress for Cultural Freedom" to go to India to speak at a conference in memory of Leo Tolstoy.  Still interested in literature, Wright helped Kyle Onstott get "Mandingo" (1957) published in France.  His last display of explosive energy occurred on November 8, 1960 in his polemical lecture, "The Situation of the Black Artist and Intellectual in the United States", delivered to students and members of the American Church in Paris.  Wright argued that American society reduced the most militant members of the black community to slaves whenever they wanted to question the racial status quo.  He offered as proof the subversive attacks of the Communists against “Native Son” and the quarrels which James Baldwin and other authors sought with him.

On November 26, 1960, Wright talked enthusiastically about “Daddy Goodness” with Langston Hughes and gave him the manuscript.  Despite various treatments, the Amoebic dysentery contracted on a visit to Africa in 1957, led to his deteriorated health over the next three years.

 Richard Wright

Richard Wright

He died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 52.  He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.  However, Wright's daughter Julia claimed that her father was murdered.  Wright in his later years came to believe that much of the plight of the black community was its own fault, as people weren't being active or militant enough to oppose oppression and to fight for justice and equality.  In this sense, some of his belief echoes that of many prominent blacks such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the right and comedian Bill Cosby on the left.

A number of Wright's works have been published posthumously.  Some of Wright's more shocking passages dealing with race, sex, and politics were cut or omitted before original publication.  In 1991, unexpurgated versions of “Native Son”, “Black Boy”, and his other works were published.  In addition, in 1994, his novella “Rite of Passage” was published for the first time.  In the last years of his life, Richard Wright became enamored with the haiku and wrote over 4,000 such poems.  In 1998 a book was published ("Haiku: This Other World" ISBN 0-385-72024-6) with 817 of his own favorite haikus.  Many of these haikus still maintain an uplifting quality even as they deal with coming to terms with loneliness, death, and the forces of nature.

A collection of Wright's travel writings was published by the Mississippi University Press in 2001.  At his death, Wright left an unfinished book, “A Father's Law”, which deals with a black policeman and the son he suspects of murder.  Wright's daughter Julia Wright published “A Father's Law” in January 2008, an omnibus edition containing Wright's political works was published under the title “Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen!.” 

 Richard Wright - Haiku

Richard Wright, Haiku

Family

Wright married Valencia Barnes Meadman, a modern-dance teacher of Russian Jewish ancestry, in 1939, but the two divorced a year later.  In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, the daughter of immigrants of Polish Jewish ancestry and a Communist Party organizer in Brooklyn. They had two daughters: Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.

Literary influences

In “Black Boy”, Wright discussed a number of authors whose works influenced his own, including H.L. MenckenGertrude SteinFyodor DostoevskySinclair LewisMarcel Proust and Edgar Lee Masters.

Awards

Wright received several different literary awards during his lifetime including the Spingarn Medal in 1941, the Guggenheim Fellowship in1939, and the Story Magazine Award.

Legacy

Black Boy” became an instant best-seller upon its publication in 1945.  Wright's stories published during the 1950s disappointed some critics who said that his move to Europe alienated him from American blacks and separated him from his emotional and psychological roots.  Many of Wright's works failed to satisfy the rigid standards of New Criticism as the works of younger black writers gained in popularity.  During the 1950s Wright grew more internationalist in outlook.  While he accomplished much as an important public literary and political figure with a worldwide reputation, his very creative work did decline.

While interest in “Black Boy” ebbed during the 1950s, a resurgence of interest by critics has ensured that “Black Boy” remain a vital work of historical, sociological, and literary significance whose seminal portrayal of one black man's search for self-actualization in a racist society made possible the works of such successive writers as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.  It is generally agreed that Wright's influence in “Native Son” is not a matter of literary style or technique.  His impact, rather, has been on ideas and attitudes, and his work has been a force in the social and intellectual history of the United States in the last half of the 20th century. "Wright was one of the people who made me conscious of the need to struggle", said writer Amiri Baraka.

During the 1970s and 1980s, scholars published critical essays about Wright in prestigious journals.  Richard Wright conferences were held on university campuses from Mississippi to New Jersey.  A new film version of "Native Son", with a screenplay by Richard Wesley, was released in December 1986.  Certain Wright novels became required reading in a number of American universities and colleges.

 Richard Wright 61-cent stamp

Richard Wright, 61-cent stamp 

Recent critics have called for a reassessment of Wright's later work in view of his philosophical project. Notably, Paul Gilroy has argued that "the depth of his philosophical interests has been either overlooked or misconceived by the almost exclusively literary enquiries that have dominated analysis of his writingHis most significant contribution, however, was his desire to accurately portray blacks to white readers, thereby destroying the white myth of the patient, humorous, subservient black man".   

In April 2009, Wright was featured on a U.S. Postage Stamp.  The 61-cent, two ounce rate stamp is the 25th installment of the literary arts series and features a portrait of Richard Wright in front of snow–swept tenements on the South Side of Chicago, a scene that recalls the setting of “Native Son”.

In 2009, Wright was featured in a 90-minute documentary about the WPA Writers' Project titled Soul of a People: Writing America's Story.  His life and work during the 1930s is also highlighted in the companion book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

 

Publications

Drama

Fiction

Non-fiction

  • How "Bigger" Was Born; Notes of a Native Son
  • 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States
  • Black Boy
  • Black Power
  • The Color Curtain
  • Pagan Spain
  • Letters to Joe C. Brown
  • American Hunger
  • Black Power: Three Books from Exile: 'Black Power'; 'The Color Curtain'; and 'White Man, Listen!'

Essays

Poetry

  • Haiku: This Other World. (Eds. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener. Arcade, 1998)
  • re-ssueISBN 978-1-61145-349-2(e-book: November 2011)

 

 

REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS


Notes

 Other References

 Other links

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