Portrait of Richard Wright, 1939. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-54231
Cover of a 1998 Perennial Classics paperback edition of Black Boy with the restored text established by The Library of America.
Richard Wright in New York City, May 1943. Photograph by Gordon Parks. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection, LC-USF35-1326
Richard Wright: Mississippi's Native Son
Mississippi has produced more world-class writers than other states in the South and among them is Richard Nathaniel Wright, an internationally acclaimed African American novelist and social critic. Wright, the son of a sharecropper father and a high-school-teacher mother, was born September 4, 1908, on a Mississippi plantation some twenty miles from Natchez.
His parentage shaped his thinking and writing: His father was the laborer, the hands that worked in the soil, the person who deals with the concrete materials of life; his mother was the thinker, the mind that journeys in realms of abstract ideas and imagination. Wright combined the best of both parents.
The quest for liberation
From his birth in Mississippi to his death in Paris on November 28, 1960, Wright was condemned to make a long and unfinished quest for liberation from prejudice.
The power of Wrights work comes, in part, from his ability to articulate the idea of hunger. During his boyhood, Wrights hunger was often physical. His fathers desertion of the family when Wright was only seven years old forced his mother to take low-paying jobs to support her sons, Richard and Leon Alan. The lack of sufficient food and the absence of his father became interchangeable in the boys mind.
As a man of thirty-seven, Wright reflected on his childhood and youth in Mississippi and other parts of the South in his autobiography Black Boy (1945). He exposed the pain of memory in words that are haunting: As the days slid past, the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and when I felt hunger I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness.
The pain of memories
Wrights bitterness, however, is directed not only against his father but also against a whole society that allowed and caused hunger among poor sharecroppers. He had painful memories of the South in the early 20th century. The laws of Mississippi supported segregation. Racial customs in the state promoted what Wright called the ethics of living Jim Crow. Jim Crow ensured that the ceiling of possibilities for a sensitive, brilliant black boy was quite low.
Society and culture created a vast need for fulfillment in Wrights young life. His hunger to develop as a whole human being was at once physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Such hunger to be, to know, and to understand was pervasive, formative, and motivating throughout his lifetime.
Like many of his peers, Wright migrated to Chicago in the late 1920s. He was part of a large-scale movement of people who sought higher wages, relief from racial oppression, and a chance to make a fresh start. Although as a teenager Wright had published a short story in a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper, his real success as a writer came with the publication of his stories about rural Southern life in Uncle Toms Children (1938).
The hunger of the spirit
His fame as an American writer was assured with the appearances of his landmark novel Native Son (1940) and his poignant autobiography Black Boy (1945). Yet, literary fame, financial security, and his acclaim as a spokesman for an entire generation of black Americans, were not enough to satisfy the hunger that was a driving force in Wrights life. Material success only served to intensify Wrights awareness that hunger of the spirit is implacable. He could write passionately and eloquently about the meaning of suffering in the lives of oppressed people, because that suffering was so integral a part of his life. Suffering was a psychological wound that would never heal.
For a period of less than ten years, Wright was a member of the American Communist Party. He thought the party had the answers, but when he discovered it was a god who failed, he renounced his membership. Wrights exposure to Marxist thought broadened his global vision and made him an especially keen observer of humanitys plight in the 20th century. On the other hand, Wright never abandoned the perspective he gained as a Mississippian, a Southerner, a man uniquely equipped by his experiences in an unjust world to be a participant-observer of the human condition.
The meaning of being human
In the books that followed Black Boy, Wright expressed his deepening interest in larger questions regarding power, authority, and freedom. Like the protagonist of his novel The Outsider (1953), published after he chose to exile himself in France, Wright felt a profound need to explore the meaning of being human. The novel can help us to understand why Wright felt so obligated to make himself part of the action or to be intrusive, even in works of non-fiction. It helps us to understand, too, Wrights sustained interest in modern psychology. The Outsider illuminates how hunger to be free from racial discrimination acts as a creative force in the art of writing. At one stage of his thinking about the possibility of being free of all responsibilities of a certain sort, Cross Damon, the protagonist of The Outsider wonders what environment would allow such freedom:
Indeed, the environment for absolute freedom is only to be discovered in the new worlds the imagination can create through writing. Whether he was analyzing the independence movement in West Africa in Black Power (1954), reporting on the Bandung Conference (a debate among Asian and African nations about their futures in a global order) in The Color Curtain (1956), examining the political and religious aspects of a Catholic culture in Pagan Spain (1957), or issuing warnings about modernization in White Man, Listen! (1957), Wright was never truly the distanced observer. He was always the engaged writer, the brother-in-suffering.
The return to the familiar
In the later years of his life, some critics accused him of having lost touch with his homeland and racial progress in America. The Long Dream (1958), the last novel published in his lifetime, Wright returns to the familiar landscape of Mississippi to work out themes that were at once personal and racial. Living in Paris in the 1950s, Wright did not have to deal directly with the trauma of the movement to desegregate institutions in the United States. By setting The Long Dream in Mississippi, Wright obligated himself to deal with the effects of dehumanizing laws and customs as he had done in Black Boy. The young hero of The Long Dream leaves Mississippi to find a new life in Paris. During his flight across the Atlantic Ocean, he thinks of the effect Jim Crow has had on his life:
The surface story in The Long Dream is about Rex Tuckers coming of age in Clintonville, a place that is rather like Natchez. The real story in the book is about parents and children, racial interactions, the hidden machinery of business, and the death of innocence. Family, order and disorder, economics, and the burdens of adulthood are themes in much of Wrights work. The Long Dream unites all of these themes. The book suggests that Mississippi is a paradox: a stage for nightmare dramas and a locale where dreams can emerge and bloom.
Richard Wright, Mississippis native son, has left a legacy of challenging works. He was a realist, a writer capable of delivering strong critiques of human failings and human potentials with wry humor and vivid images. His work challenges readers to observe carefully. Whether his works deal with the rural South or the urban North, the foibles of fictional characters or the motives of leading figures in world affairs, Wright was always very Southern in his insistence that his readers must know history. In part to satisfy his own hunger, Richard Wright created a body of literature from which readers might, as he put it in Black Boy, win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature and Chairman of the Department of English at Tougaloo College. He compiled and edited Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (Mentor 1997) and is a co-founder of the Richard Wright Circle.
Posted June 2002
Bibliography of Works by Richard Wright
Uncle Toms Children. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938;
Native Son. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940; HarperCollins,
The Outsider. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953; HarperCollins,
Savage Holiday. New York: Avon Books, 1954; Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1994.
The Long Dream. New York: Doubleday, 1958; Boston: Northeastern
University Press, 2000.
Eight Men. Cleveland: World, 1961; New York: HarperPerennial,
Lawd Today! New York: Avon Books, 1963; Boston: Northeastern UP,
Rite of Passage. New York: HarperCollins, 1994
This Other World: Haiku. New York: Arcade, 1998. [poetry]
12 Million Black Voices. New York: Viking, 1941
Black Boy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945; HarperCollins,
Black Power. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954; New York:
The Color Curtain. Cleveland: World, 1954; Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Pagan Spain. New York: Harper & Row, 1957; New York: HarperPerennial,
White Man, Listen! New York: Doubleday, 1957; New York: HarperPerennial,
American Hunger. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Selected Bibliography of Works About Richard Wright
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. 1973; Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Gayle, Addison. Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son. New York:
Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1973.
Miller, Eugene E. Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Rampersad, Arnold, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1995.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad, 1988.
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