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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Remembering Richard Wright

By Mattew DuffusOne of America’s greatest black writers, Richard Wright was also among the first African American writers to achieve literary fame and fortune, but his reputation has less to do with the color of his skin than with the superb quality of his work. He was born and spent the first years of his life on a plantation, not far from the affluent city of Natchez on the Mississippi River, but his life as the son of an illiterate sharecropper was far from affluent. Though he spent only a few years of his life in Mississippi, those years would play a key role in his two most important works: Native Son, a novel, and his autobiography, Black Boy.Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. His father, Nathaniel, was an illiterate sharecropper and his mother, Ella Wilson, was a well-educated schoolteacher. The family’s extreme poverty forced them to move to Memphis when Richard was six years old. Soon after, his father left the family for another woman and his mother was forced to work as a cook in order to support the family. Richard briefly stayed in an orphanage during this period as well. His mother became ill while living in Memphis, so the family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and lived with Ella’s mother.Richard’s grandmother, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, enrolled him in a Seventh Day Adventist school near Jackson at the age of twelve. He also attended a local public school for a few years. In the spring of 1924 the Southern Register, a local black newspaper, printed his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre.” From 1925 to 1927, he worked several menial jobs in Jackson and Memphis. During this time he continued writing and discovered the works of H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis.In 1927 he moved to Chicago, where he became a Post Office clerk until the Great Depression forced him to take on various temporary positions. During this time he became involved with the Communist Party, writing articles and stories for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. In April 1931 he published his first major story, “Superstition,” in Abbot’s Monthly.His ties to the Communist Party continued after moving to New York in 1937. He became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine, New Challenge. In 1938 four of his stories were collected as Uncle Tom’s Children. He then received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first novel, Native Son (1940). In 1939, he married Dhimah Rose Meadman, a white dancer, but the two separated shortly thereafter. In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist Party, and they had two daughters, Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.In 1944 he broke with the Communist Party but continued to follow liberal ideologies. After moving to Paris in 1946, Wright became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus while going through an Existentialist phase best depicted by his second novel, The Outsiders (1953). In 1954 he published a minor novel, Savage Holiday. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, he continued to travel throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, and these experiences led to a number of nonfiction works.In his last years, he was plagued by illness (aerobic dysentary) and financial hardship. Throughout this period he wrote approximately 4,000 English Haikus (some of which were recently published for the first time) and another novel, The Long Dream, in 1958. He also prepared another collection of short stories, Eight Men, which was published after his death on November 28, 1960.Among his other works are two autobiographies. Black Boy, published in 1945, covered his youth in the segregated South, and American Hunger, published posthumously in 1977, treated his membership and disillusionment with the Communist Party.Many of Wright’s works failed to satisfy the rigid standards of the New Criticism, but his evolution as a writer has interested readers throughout the world. The importance of his works comes not from his technique and style, but from the impact his ideas and attitudes have had on American life. Wright is seen as a seminal figure in the black revolution that followed his earliest novels. Bigger Thomas, the central figure of Native Son, is a murderer, but his situation galvanized the thought of black leaders toward the desire to confront the world and help shape the future of their race.As his vision of the world extended beyond the U.S., his quest for solutions expanded to include the politics and economics of emerging third world nations. Wright’s development was marked by an ability to respond to the currents of the social and intellectual history of his time. His 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.

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