Pioneering African American writer Richard Wright is best known for the classic texts ‘Black Boy’ and ‘Native Son.’
Who Was Richard Wright?
Richard Wright was an African American writer and poet who published his first short story at the age of 16. Later, he found employment with the Federal Writers’ Project and received critical acclaim for Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of four stories. He is well-known for his 1940 bestseller Native Son and his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in Roxie, Mississippi. The grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, Wright was largely raised by his mother, a caring woman who became a single parent after her husband left the family when Wright was five years old.
Schooled in Jackson, Mississippi, Wright only managed to get a ninth-grade education, but he was a voracious reader and showed early on that he had a way with words. When he was 16, a short story of his was published in a Southern African American newspaper, an encouraging sign for future prospects. After leaving school, Wright worked a series of odd jobs, and in his free time, he delved into American literature. To pursue his literary interests, Wright went as far as to forge notes so he could take out books on a white coworker’s library card, as blacks were not allowed to use the public libraries in Memphis. The more he read about the world, the more Wright longed to see it and make a permanent break from the Jim Crow South. “I want my life to count for something,” he told a friend.
Chicago, New York and the Communist Party
In 1927, Wright finally left the South and moved to Chicago, where he worked at a post office and also swept streets. Like so many Americans struggling through the Depression, Wright fell prey to bouts of poverty. Along the way, his frustration with American capitalism led him to join the Communist Party in 1932. When he could, Wright continued to plow through books and write. He eventually joined the Federal Writers’ Project, and in 1937, with dreams of making it as a writer, he moved to New York City, where he was told he stood a better chance of getting published.
Commercial and Critical Successes
‘Uncle Tom’s Children’
In 1938, Wright published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of four stories that marked a significant turning point in his career. The stories earned him a $500 prize from Story magazine and led to a 1939 Guggenheim Fellowship.
More acclaim followed in 1940 with the publication of the novel Native Son, which told the story of a 20-year-old African American man named Bigger Thomas. The book brought Wright fame and freedom to write. It was a regular atop the bestseller lists and became the first book by an African American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. A stage version, written by Wright and Paul Green, followed in 1941, and Wright himself later played the title role in a film version made in Argentina.
In 1945, Wright published Black Boy, which offered a moving account of his childhood and youth in the South. It also depicts extreme poverty and his accounts of racial violence against blacks.
Later Years and Career
After living mainly in Mexico from 1940 to 1946, Wright became so disillusioned with both the Communist Party and white America that he went off to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life as an expatriate. He continued to write novels, including The Outsider (1953) and The Long Dream (1958), and nonfiction, such as Black Power (1954) and White Man, Listen! (1957)
Wright died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960, in Paris, France. His naturalistic fiction no longer has the standing it once enjoyed, but his life and works remain exemplary.