This Day In Writing History
On September 4th, 1908, the legendary African-American writer Richard Wright was born. The grandson of former slaves, Wright was born on the Rucker plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, after which, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.
Unable to find work, Wright's father abandoned the family. Wright's mother, a schoolteacher, supported herself and her children. When she fell ill in 1914, Richard Wright and his brother were sent to a Methodist orphanage.
After Wright's mother recovered, she and her sons moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with relatives. First, they lived with Wright's maternal grandmother, Margaret Wilson, then they went to stay with an aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas.
After Wright's uncle was murdered by whites, the family fled to West Helena, Arknsas, where they lived in hiding in rented rooms. After moving back and forth between West Helena and Elaine, Wright's mother suffered a stroke.
In 1919, Richard Wright reluctantly decided to live with another aunt and uncle, Jody and Clark, in Greenwood, Mississippi, so he could be near his ailing mother. Unfortunately, Aunt Jody and Uncle Clark turned out to be fanatically religious Seventh Day Adventists.
Making his life miserable with their extreme strictness and maniacal devotion to their faith, their fanaticism nearly drove Wright to a nervous breakdown, so he was allowed to move back with his grandmother. Unfortunately, she was also a Seventh Day Adventist.
When she refused to let him work on Saturdays - the Adventist Sabbath - Wright threatened to leave home. This atmosphere of religious fanaticism and family conflict would instill in him a lifelong seething hatred of religion.
As a teenager, Richard Wright attended a public high school and excelled in academics. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first short story, The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre, which was published in a local black newspaper called The Southern Register.
In 1923, Wright became his high school's sophomore class valedictorian, but he refused to deliver the speech written for him by the assistant principal - a speech specifically designed not to offend the school's white officials in any way.
Willing to make a few compromises, Wright was able to convince the black administrators to allow him to give the speech that he had originally written for the graduation ceremony.
The following year, Wright attended the newly built Lanier High School in Jackson, but dropped out to work to support his family. His childhood in Tennessee and Mississippi exposed him to the horrors of racism and shaped his view of white America, which would later be reflected in his writing.
Although he had to leave school, Wright was determined to educate himself. In 1927, he moved to Chicago, where he took a job as a postal clerk. In his spare time, he became a voracious reader and studied the styles of other writers.
In 1931, Wright lost his job to the Great Depression and was forced to go on relief. A year later, he began attending meetings of the John Reed Club, an organization of left-leaning artists and writers.
Since most of the Club's members also belonged to the Communist Party, in late 1933, Wright joined the party, too. He became a revolutionary poet, and his proletarian poems, such as I Have Seen Black Hands, We of the Streets, and Red Leaves of Red Books, were published in The New Masses and other leftist magazines and newspapers.
In 1935, Richard Wright completed his first novel, Cesspool. This early work would be published posthumously in 1963 as Lawd Today.
When he wasn't publishing short stories, Wright worked with the National Negro Congress and chaired the Southside Writers' Group. He also served as an editor for Left Front magazine until 1937, when, despite his protests, the magazine was shut down by the Communist Party.
Although Wright enjoyed generally good relations with communists in Chicago, his insistence on giving young communist writers an outlet for their talents and his work with a black nationalist communist led to a falling out with the Communist Party and its top black leader, Buddy Nealson.
Wright found himself denounced as a bourgeois intellectual by other black communists, threatened at knifepoint by his communist sympathizer co-workers, denounced as a Trotskyite by strikers, and beaten by his former comrades when he tried to join them in their 1936 May Day march.
In 1937, Richard Wright finally left Chicago and moved to New York City, where he was humiliated when some fellow communists reneged on their offer to help find him an apartment after learning that he was black.
Wright was nonetheless able to forge new ties with the Communist Party after he became an established writer in New York. He worked on the New York Panorama (1938), the WPA Writers' Project's guidebook to the city, which included his essay on Harlem.
From there, Wright became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker newspaper, for which he wrote over 200 articles. He also served as an editor for a short-lived literary magazine called New Challenge.
1938 proved to be an important year for Wright. He met and became friends with the prominent black writer and scholar Ralph Ellison, and his short story Fire and Cloud won first prize and $500 from Story magazine.
After he received the prize, Wright shelved his early novel Cesspool, fired his literary agent, and hired a new, prominent one. Harper agreed to publish a collection of all of Wright's prize entry stories. This collection was titled Uncle Tom's Children.
It brought Wright national fame and improved his relations with the Communist Party. It sold well, too, which provided him with financial security, enabling him to begin work on his classic first published novel, Native Son (1940).
Native Son tells the tragic story of Bigger Thomas, (his first name is a deliberate play on the racial epithet nigger) a black teenager who lives in a rat infested one room apartment with his brother, his sister, and their mother.
Bigger's life is a bleak maze of poverty, pool halls, and petty crime. That is, until he gets a job as chauffeur for the Daltons, a wealthy white family. The job requires him to live in the Dalton home, and Bigger loves having his own room.
Still, he's always on edge because he has no idea how to behave around white people and he's terrified of losing his job. The Daltons have a rebellious, left-leaning teenage daughter, Mary, whose boyfriend, Jan, is a communist.
One night, while Bigger is driving Mary around, they pick up Jan. The couple has Bigger take them to a diner where Jan's friends are. Bigger is asked to join the group and told to call everyone by their first names.
Bigger has never called a white person by his first name, which adds to his awkwardness and fear. Later that night, he drives around the park while Jan and Mary fool around in the back seat and drink rum.
After Jan leaves, Bigger drives Mary home. Since she's unable to walk because she's so drunk, Bigger carries her into the house, fearful that someone will see her in his arms. They pass by Mrs. Dalton, who is blind.
Afraid that she'll sense his presence, Bigger covers Mary's face with a pillow to keep her quiet. Mrs. Dalton smells the alcohol on Mary, scolds her, and leaves the room. Unfortunately, Bigger doesn't realize that Mary is suffocating under the pillow.
After her mother leaves the room, Bigger removes the pillow and finds that Mary is dead - he accidentally killed her. Terrified, Bigger panics, realizing that white people will never believe that Mary's death was an accident. He ultimately decides to stuff Mary's body in the furnace.
Later, Bigger visits his girlfriend Bessie. When she mentions a famous kidnapping case, Bigger decides to write a fake ransom note to make it seem that Mary has been kidnapped. The note works.
The Daltons hire a private detective. Later, the police take over the investigation. Reporters arrive at the Dalton house. After one of them finds Mary's bones in the furnace, Bigger flees. He goes to Bessie and confesses, and the two of them go on the lam.
Bessie is so terrified that Bigger has to literally drag her around with him. One night, he rapes Bessie, then realizes that he'll have to kill her to stay free. After bludgeoning her with a brick and throwing her through a window, he takes off.
In the newspapers, Bigger is vilified by both the white and black communities. The whites call him a murderous ape and the blacks hate him for giving the whites an excuse for their racism.
After leading the police on a wild chase over the rooftops of the city, Bigger is caught and arrested. Even though he caused Mary's death, her boyfriend Jan arranges for Bigger to be defended by a lawyer - a fellow communist named Max.
Max delivers a brilliant and eloquent defense wherein he explains how white society oppresses black people from the day they're born. Nevertheless, Bigger is convicted and sentenced to death. While on death row, Bigger finally calls Jan by his first name.
Native Son proved to be a huge critical and commercial success for Richard Wright. Within its first three weeks of publication, it sold 250,000 copies, making Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time.
The novel was one of the earliest attempts to portray the racial divide in America in terms of the socioeconomic conditions imposed on blacks by the dominant white society. Most of Wright's fellow black writers praised it, but some did not.
When legendary African-American writer James Baldwin dismissed the novel as a work of "protest fiction" and therefore of limited artistic value, Wright was deeply hurt by the assessment. It would end their close friendship.
In March of 1941, a stage play adaptation of Native Son, co-written by Richard Wright, opened on Broadway. The production was directed by Orson Welles and received mostly good reviews.
As a communist, Wright was blacklisted by Hollywood, but in 1950, a feature film version of Native Son was produced in Argentina. Richard Wright played the teenage Bigger Thomas himself, despite the fact that he was 42 years old at the time.
In 1945, Wright published his second-most-famous book, a classic autobiography called Black Boy. It was more an autobiographical novel than a straight autobiography, which was exactly the author's intention.
The following year, disgusted with America, Richard Wright moved his family to Paris, France, where he met and became friends with writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. This resulted in Wright's classic existential novel, The Outsider (1953).
It told the story of a black man, Cross Damon (whom Wright modeled after himself) whose status as a Negro intellectual alienates him from whites and blacks alike. Damon has a "habit of incessant reflection" wherein he ponders the meaning of life.
Having rejected religion, mainstream society, the communist alternative, and his self-destructive behavior as the product of his own free will, Damon sees love as his last hope. But even that proves futile when his mistress commits suicide.
Throughout the 1950s, Wright continued to produce quality novels and stories, but none of them matched the raw power of Native Son. He returned to poetry when he fell in love with the Japanese haiku and wrote over 4,000 of his own haiku.
In 1957, while on a visit to Africa, Wright contracted amoebic dysentery. Despite receiving various treatments for the disease, his health deteriorated over the next three years. On November 28th, 1960, Richard Wright died of a heart attack in Paris. He was 52 years old.
After his death, as the civil rights movement in America gained momentum, Richard Wright became one of the most influential black writers in the country, his classic novel Native Son becoming essential reading again some twenty years after it was first published.
Many of his unpublished writings were published posthumously. In 1991, the original, unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy, and other works by Richard Wright were finally published in the United States.
Today, Native Son is best known as one of TV legend Oprah Winfrey's favorite novels. It remains one of the top selections of her book club.
Quote Of The Day
"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all." - Richard Wright
Today's video features a lecture on Richard Wright's classic autobiography, Black Boy by Yale professor Amy Hungerford. Enjoy!