Richard Wright Part 3 of 15 Black Authors
When I think of Richard Wright, I close my eyes, and I hear a melody so beautiful that it has not yet been written because there is no instrument to play it. Not even the strings of a harp could be strummed or plucked or caressed in a manner sophisticated enough to represent the beauty of Richard Wright.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in Natchez, Mississippi. I think that if someone had told Richard that he would be a staple in the black community as an established author, he would have nodded his head yes and looked at the person as though they hadn’t told him anything new. Knowing what you want to do from the day that you are born is a blessing. Richard Wright was blessed. Wright was the valedictorian of his junior high school class, where he refused to give the speech that had been rewritten for him by the principal, who was afraid that Wright’s speech might be seen as offensive to some of the White attendees. Wright was threatened with not being allowed to graduate but stood his ground and was finally allowed to give the speech that he had written for himself. Wright would drop out of school in the ninth grade to help take care of his mother. Wright’s mother would have several strokes, deeming her an invalid. Wright’s younger brother would be sent to live with an aunt, and his mother sent to a hospital. Wright was determined to put his family back together and would hold several jobs in his efforts to do so. Wright moved to Chicago to live with his aunt and was able to find work at the post office but was laid off because he could not pass the physical examination because he was malnourished. Wright would later complete the physical and finally be able to earn a living. Wright would also work as an editor at a job that he got through FDR’s famous New Deal WPA-Works Projects Association. Wright would put his family back together and bring both his mother and brother to live with him in Chicago in a four-room apartment.
Having grown up in the Jim Crow south, Wright was no stranger to the scarcity that Blacks in the United States suffered. As a result of his frustrations with race relations and the ongoing unfair treatment of Black’s Wright joined the communist party and wrote for several of their newspapers. It was not uncommon for blacks to proclaim loyalty to the communist party because it was supposed to represent equality. Equal pay for equal work and all businesses would have been owned by the government instead of private parties. It was, after all, the government that created the situation of race in the first place. Essentially, Wright would become frustrated with the party and the lack of movement they seemed to be making, and he quit. However, leaving the party did not dissolve his disdain for the treatment he and other men of color were enduring in America.
Wright won the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 Wright won the Guggenheim Fellowship for Uncle Tom’s Children, which gave him the time and finances he needed to finish Native Son.
In 1937 Wright would also win a literary contest for “Fire and Cloud,” published in Story Magazine, garnered Wright $500. Fire and Cloud is also a part of Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of essays by Wright.
Things would only get better from there. In 1940 Native Son was published and would gain Wright uncharted success as a black author. Native Son would sell 250,000 copies in the United States at first print, making Wright the wealthiest black author of his time.
1945 brings additional success to Wright when his semi-autobiographical novel, Black Boy, was published and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a best-seller.
Wright visited Paris in 1946 for several months, and upon returning to the United States, he continued to experience racism, so in 1947 Wright moved his family to France, where they became permanent expatriates. Wright would be invited back to the United States on several occasions, but he refused to return due to the racial divide that the country could not seem to overcome.
On November 28, 1960, Richard Wright would die of a heart attack in Paris, France. Wright’s works continue to spark controversy and land themselves on banned book lists.
It is always interesting to see the world through the eyes of someone else, especially someone you admire. Race relations have changed in some areas but stayed the same in others. Paris is not what it used to be, and as always, the literary community is hungry for another great author.
“And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red, I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun…
Between the World and Me-Richard Wright