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Richard Wright: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Natalie Purcell

Natalie teaches high school English and French and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you'll get a brief overview of Richard Wright's childhood in the southern U.S., his young adult life in the north, and his later life overseas. It includes descriptions of his most influential works, Native Son and Black Boy.

Early Life in the South

Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 - November 28, 1960) was born on Rucker's Plantation in Mississippi. His father was Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and his mother was Ella Wilson, a schoolteacher. At the age of five, his father left and his mother was forced to take domestic work. In 1920, she suffered a stroke and became paralyzed. The family eventually moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with Wright's maternal grandparents, who were strict Seventh-day Adventists. His grandmother was illiterate and didn't allow fiction to be read in the house, claiming that it was from the devil.

Wright attended several schools but still graduated from Smith Robertson Junior High School as the class valedictorian in 1925. He began attending high school but dropped out after a few weeks to begin working and saving money to move north. At age seventeen, he went to Memphis where he worked odd jobs and began to read contemporary American literature and commentary by H. L. Mencken. In his autobiography, Wright recalled that he had to borrow the library card of an Irish co-worker and forge a note requesting permission just to be allowed to check out the books that he wanted to read. Determined to leave the oppression of the south and the Jim Crow Laws, Wright took the train to Chicago in December 1927.

Moving North and Writing

Once settled in Chicago, Wright worked at various odd jobs. In 1932 he was introduced to the John Reed Club, an intellectual branch of the Communist party, and he became a member of the party the following March. In 1935 he began working with the Federal Negro Theater in Chicago under the Federal Writers' Project. In 1937 Wright moved to New York City in order to help launch New Challenge magazine, one of the first publications to feature realistic portrayals of black Americans. He also became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker as well as co-editor of Left Front, two Communist publications.

His personal literary career took off when his short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), won first prize for best book-length manuscript in the Story magazine contest open to Federal Writers' Project authors. His most critically acclaimed novel, Native Son followed in 1940. It was the first bestselling novel and the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection written by a black American writer. It sold 215,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication and made Wright the most respected and wealthiest black writer in America. A year after the publication of Native Son, he married Ellen Poplar, a white woman and fellow Communist party member. Their first daughter was born in 1942, and a second daughter was born in Paris in 1949.

Author Richard Wright
Author, Richard Wright

Native Son

In Native Son, Wright presents his main character, Bigger Thomas, a street smart nineteen-year-old from Chicago's south side ghetto. Bigger is offered a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, and he imagines himself in various fantasies, including sexual ones with his employer's daughter, Mary. Bigger's first driving job requires him to drive Mary on a date with her boyfriend. After a night of dinner and drinking, Bigger must take Mary home and put her in bed. Bigger and Mary begin kissing in her bedroom, and afraid of being caught, he puts a pillow over her face when her blind mother walks in. He ends up accidentally killing her, so he drags her in a trunk to the basement and burns her in the furnace.

Bigger returns to his mother's tenement feeling elated for killing a white girl and getting away with it. He now believes that everyone he knows is blind. To elevate his guilt, Bigger makes a plan and brutally murders his girlfriend Bessie as well. He is eventually captured and arrested. At the trial, Bigger is never convicted for his girlfriend's murder, only for the suspected rape of Mary, in that time considered to be a more serious crime than even Mary's murder.

While blacks were proud of Wright's success, they were also uncomfortable with the protagonist, Bigger, who was a stereotype of the brute Negro image they had been trying to overcome. Wright's uncompromising argument was that white racist America created Bigger; therefore, white America had better change or more Biggers would arise. In the end, when Bigger could not be saved from the electric chair, Wright was faulting the Communist party for not understanding the black people whom it relied upon so heavily for support. Personally disillusioned with the Communist party, Wright left it in 1942.

Black Boy

Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, published in 1945 was again a bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection, although the U.S. Senate denounced it as obscene. Wright's publishers in 1945 only included the story of his life in the south, and cut what followed about his life in the north. However, it does include an account of a visit he made to his father in the early 1940's, the first time Wright had seen him in 25 years. He describes his father as 'standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands . . . when I tried to talk to him I realized that . . . we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality.'

A famous passage in Black Boy that has bothered critics and distanced Wright from the African-American community proclaims the 'cultural barrenness of black life.' He wrote, ' . . . I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair.' Statements like these contradict others he made that describe a caring community. For example, when Wright's mother suffers a stroke and is left paralyzed, he describes neighbors who nursed his mother night and day, fed the family, and washed their clothes.

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