Richard WrightAug 7th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1908-1960 Richard Nathaniel Wright, one of America’s great literary figures, was also one of the first African American writers to receive international fame and notoriety. He was a prolific writer who used stunning prose to address themes of race, gender, politics, and the struggle for individual freedom. Wright was the first black author to have a best-selling novel.
Many Wrongs Make a Wright
Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a cotton plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents had been slaves, and he was the elder of two sons born to Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson, an educated schoolteacher. Wright’s younger brother, Leon Alan, was born in 1910. Their childhood was tumultuous and difficult. The family faced dire economic hardship in the racially segregated rural south, and when Wright was age six, his father abandoned them. The two boys were briefly remanded to an orphanage, and later housed with their abusive grandparents after their mother was paralyzed by a stroke when Wright was 10 years old.
One of Wright’s earliest and most influential memories, described in Black Boy, was an accident that occurred at his grandparents’ house. He was just a young boy, and after tossing some broom bristles into the fireplace, curtains nearby caught fire and the entire house burned to the ground. Wright was beaten unconscious by his mother for this unintentional act. He lost innocence that day, through violence and through loss of trust in his mother as a sympathetic and nurturing figure. It precipitated Wright’s lifelong quest for identity through the strength of the individual, a major theme in his writings.
Another tragic milestone in Wright’s life occurred in 1917, at age eight. His mother had taken her two sons to live with an aunt and uncle, Maggie and Silas Hopkins. For the first time, the boys were well fed, and had found a father figure in their uncle, a successful business owner who supplied the black community in Elaine, Arkansas, with building materials. When Silas was shot and lynched by a white man who went unpunished, Wright was overwhelmed by the injustice and complexity of human nature.
He found little solace in moving to live with his grandparents, now in Jackson, Mississippi, who still blamed Wright for the accidental fire that had burned down their house. While he was able to attend school, his grandparents routinely beat Wright and his brother, and indoctrinated them with their devout and fiery brand of religion. He survived by focusing on school, where he excelled. In 1925, Wright was valedictorian of his graduating class, and published his first story in the Southern Register. That same year, he struck out on his own for Memphis, Tennessee. Years later, in 1945, Wright wrote of his youth: “My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety.”
On the Wright Path
A voracious reader, Wright was forced to obtain books from the segregated Memphis library by pretending that he was checking them out on behalf of a white man. He became enthusiastic about the work of H.L. Mencken, which helped him decide that he, too, wanted to be a writer. In 1927, Wright joined the Great Migration of Blacks headed north in search of better opportunities. The journey’s hardships for those who made the trek had a strong impact on Wright, much as his childhood traumas had. He eventually told the story of the migration in a book entitled Twelve Million Black Voices. On arrival in Chicago, Wright found work as a post office clerk, and later with the Federal Writers’ Project. He coupled a strong work ethic with a continued rigorous self-education, and soon sent for his mother and brother to join him in Chicago.
In 1932, Wright aligned himself with the Communist Party and began publishing work in many of the popular leftist journals of the day. By 1937, he was sufficiently enmeshed in politics to move to New York City and work as editor of the Daily Worker. The following year, Wright was able to publish a collection of short stories about racism in the rural south called Uncle Tom’s Children. He addressed the question of how a black man can live in a nation that denies his humanity. The work was hailed as an outstanding literary achievement, and Wright was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to devote his full attention to further writing.
One of Wright’s most critically acclaimed novels, Native Son, was published in 1940. It was a best seller from the day it hit the shelves, and many bookstores sold out within hours. The book was made into a Broadway play by Orson Welles in 1941. Wright had briefly married Dhima Rose Meadman in 1939, but the marriage broke up and two years later, he wed Ellen Poplowitz (sometimes called Poplar), a white communist supporter from Brooklyn. Their first daughter, Julia, was born in 1942. In 1944, Wright left the Communist Party because of personal and ideological disparities. One year later, he published his internationally famous autobiography, Black Boy, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The book sold an incredible 500,000 copies.
At age 38, Wright, accompanied by his wife and daughter, left the United States for France in the hopes of finding an easier place to live as an interracial family. Their second daughter, Rachel, was born in Paris in 1949. In Europe, Wright was one of the leading intellectuals and writers of the day. He was hailed by his contemporaries, some of whom included Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. For the 14 years of his so-called “exile” period, Wright wrote prolifically while living in France and visiting Argentina, Indonesia, Africa, and Spain. His work included poetry and nonfiction, lauded as being as powerful and groundbreaking as his famed early fictional works, but which failed to sell well in the anti-communist, McCarthy era United States. Wright died of a heart attack on November 20, 1960. He was 52 years old. He is considered today to be one of history’s literary giants, race notwithstanding, and was the first mainstream black author. The uncensored versions of all of his works were published in 1991.