Monday 6 February 2012

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

February is Black History Month (insert your own overused joke about blacks being given the shortest month), so in honor of that we’re going to feature some black Richards on this fine blog.

Richard Wright seems like a fair place to start since he’s kind of a famous literary man. I must admit, however, that I haven’t really read any of Wright’s work. Shameful, I know. I once read some portions of Black Boy, his autobiography, in a school textbook, but the selection contained way too many instances of little Richard being beaten for my tastes. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s children being hit, so I never felt a desire to read all of Black Boy. I hear, however, that it is an excellent exposé of a man’s poverty-stricken childhood in the racist American South, as well as being incredibly influential for its portrayal of Wright’s journey to self-actualization.

My other personal encounter with Richard Wright came courtesy of a children’s book (once owned by my younger brother) called Richard Wright and the Library Card. As the title indicates, it was about Richard and his struggle to use the library. In a segregated country, the black library had a pitiful selection, while the white library was well stocked. Hungry for knowledge, Richard wanted to use books from the white library. I don’t remember the exact ending, but since it was a kid’s book, I’m pretty sure Richard made friends with a librarian or something and got to sneak books (or have them sneaked to him) from the white library.

Anyway, here’s some information on Richard Wright, cobbled together from my memories of Black Boy and Wikipedia.

Born on a plantation near Roxie, Mississippi, Richard spent a portion of his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived with his mother and a sibling (not sure what happened to his father), and they were really poor. At one point, his mother gave Richard to social services/an orphanage. He tried to walk back home, got lost, had to return to the orphanage, and was beaten for his trouble. Very sad.

Eventually, his mother got him back, and from 1920 to 1925 Richard lived with his maternal grandmother and aunt in Jackson, Mississippi. His grandmother and aunt were very devout Seventh Day Adventists, who constantly prayed that Richard would find God. He didn’t; instead, he was left with unabated hostility towards organized religion.
Although Richard was valedictorian of his junior high, he never finished high school.  He had to start working at age 15 to help out his family, so he seems to have only attended a few weeks of high school. In 1927 (age nineteen), he moved to Chicago and became a postal clerk. Wikipedia says that Richard began reading the work of famous authors in his time off, so I’m guessing the saga of Richard Wright and his library card took place during his early years in Chicago.

Wright’s job was eliminated sometime during the Great Depression and by 1931 he was on “relief.” In 1932 he began making acquaintances with Communists, officially joining the party in 1933. Wright worked on some Communist magazines, but he had some trouble getting along with everyone. Some black Communists thought he was too bourgeois (and white) because he spoke well, assuming it was because he was wealthy and had a good education (obviously, this was untrue; he had taught himself using that precious library card). After his relationship with the Chicago Communists had deteriorated to the point that Wright was assaulted in the street and denounced as a Trotskyite, he moved to New York City.

Wright arrived in New York in 1937, and his initial time there was positive and productive. He worked on some magazines, helped write the WPA-sponsored guidebook to New York City, forged ties with New York Communists, and became friends with Ralph Ellison (whose book, Invisible Man, I actually have read. It’s good, but weird at times). He published a collection of short stories called Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, which earned him more prominence in the Communist Party and some financial stability. He moved to Harlem, obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship, and finished writing Native Son (published in 1940). This was followed by several other successes: a successful Broadway play based on Native Son, a photography-and-text work called Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (the text was by Wright; many of the photos were from a New Deal government agency), and the publication of Black Boy in 1945.

Richard moved to Paris in 1946, which was where he died of a heart attack in 1960. He then spent the rest of his life traveling around Europe, Asia, and Africa. He mostly wrote non-fiction during those years and tried to avoid the CIA. He had been under surveillance since 1943 and was even blacklisted in Hollywood. In 1954 he had to answer some questions at the American Embassy in Paris about some of his former associates; apparently, that was the cost of getting his passport renewed. He published some more fiction in the late 1950s, and (despite financial need) refused to do any creative or intellectual endeavors in which he suspected involvement by the American government.

threat. They probably didn’t do him in, but wouldn’t that make an awesome novel!

While Richard clearly enjoyed living outside of the United States, his fictional work did decline in quality (some critics have suggested it was because he still wrote about American blacks but was now alienated from them). He was also not very involved in the early American Civil Rights movement, which began in the late 1950s. He was living in Europe then and was already dead by the time the movement reached full swing in the 1960s. I think that’s rather unfortunate, as it would have been fascinating to hear his opinions on the Civil Rights movement. We might have gotten some interesting fiction out of it.

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