Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908-1960)

From Books and Writers:

“And, curiously, he felt that he was something, somebody, precisely and simply because of that cold threat of death. The terror of the white world had left no doubt in him about his worth; in fact, that white world had guaranteed his worth in the most brutal and dramatic manner. Most surely he was was something, in the eyes of the white world, or it would not have threatened him as it had. That white world, then, threatened as much as it beckoned. Though he did not know it, he was fatally in love with that white world, in love in a way that could never be cured. That white world’s attempt to curb him dangerously and irresponsibly claimed him for its own.” (from The Long Dream, 1958)

Wright Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents had been slaves and his father, Nathaniel, who was an illiterate sharecropper and mill worker, left home when Richard was six. Wright grew up in poverty, staying often at homes of relatives. His mother, Ella Wilson, was a schoolteacher; she moved with her family to Memphis, where she found employment as a cook. In 1915-16 Wright attended school for a few months, but his mother’s illness forced him to leave. He attended school sporadically, lived in Arkansas with his aunt Maggie and uncle Silas, who was murdered, and in Mississippi. In his childhood Wright was often beaten. However, he continued to teach himself, secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library in Memphis. “My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety,” he later wrote in his autobiography BLACK BOY (1945).

Wright worked at various jobs, among others as a newspaper delivery boy and as an assistant to an insurance agent. His spare-time jobs enabled Wright to buy schoolbooks, pulp magazines, and dime novels, all of which he read avidly. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first story, ‘The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre’. It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. Wright attended junior high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and graduated in 1925. From 1925 to 1927 Wright lived in Memphis, where he worked for an optical company.

Wright2 In 1937 Wright moved to New York City, becoming editor of Daily Worke , and a later vice president of the League for American Writers. In 1938 Wright published UNCLE TOM’S CHILDREN, a collection of stories of Southern racism, which was reissued in expanded form two years later. The story ‘Fire and Cloud’ was given the O. Henry Memorial award in 1938. Uncle Tom’s Children helped Wright to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to devote his full time to writing.

Wright was named in the late 1930s to the literature editorial board of New Masses, and was denounced by the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities investigating the Federal Writers’ Project. In 1940 Wright’s Native Son became an instant best-seller. In some bookstores stock was sold out within hours; the novel sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks. Many white Americans saw Bigger Thomas, the central character, as a symbol of the entire black community, and Wright later stated that “there are meanings in my books of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper.” Wright used in the book a 1938 criminal case involving a black youth, Robert Nixon, who killed a white woman.

For the most part, the book was rendered in the present. Wright was an avid filmgoer and he explained that “I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger’s story was happening now, like play upon a stage or a movie…” In the first film version, directed by Pierre Chenal, and adapted by Chenal and Wright, the author himself acted the role of Bigger Thomas. Wright spent three years on the project. The film was a disaster. The 1986 version was directed by Jerrold Freedman and adapted by Richard Wesley. Oprah Winfrey was in the role of Bigger’s mother. “The second adaptation even goes so far as to eliminate Bigger’s murder of Bessie, in order to reinforce the idea that Bigger is a mild-mannered victim, thus robbing the story of any controversy, and dialectic, and any philosophical significance. It also robs the story of the complexities of gender relations between black men and black women that are touched upon by Wright.” (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)

The protagonist of Native Son is a young black man in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who lives in a one-room apartment in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, with his mother, his young sister, Vera, and younger brother, Buddy. He is hired by a wealthy family named Dalton as their chauffeur. Mr. Dalton gives money for social welfare, but at the same time owns the rat-infested building in which Bigger lives. The rhythms of Bigger’s life are “indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger – like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force.” The family’s free-thinking daughter Mary befriends him – with her he visits Communist headquarters, where she meets her boyfriend Jan Erlone. Mary has had too much drink. Bigger carries Mary back to her room. When her blind mother enters the room, he accidentally smothers her. In panic, he burns the body in the basement and attempt to implicate Jan. Mary’s bones are discovered and Bigger also kills his own girlfriend, Bessie, to cover his tracks. He is captured and in the jail Bigger feels for the first time a sense of freedom: “Seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be.” He is then condemned to death and faces his destiny unrepentantly, affirming that ‘what I killed for, I am!’ Yet in prison he also comes to terms with the need for a common brotherhood. The last third of the book is largely a speech given by Boris A. Max, a party attorney, in Bigger’s defense at his trial. Wright clearly used Max to convey his own Marxist assessment of the racial situation in the United States. The speech is also based on Clarence Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb. Wright’s leftist friends were troubled because the Wright did not view Bigger’s fate from an exploited worker’s perspective. During the 1950s, the widespread fear of communism incited by the Cold War and McCarthyism led to the diminished popularity of Native Son. The sexually explicit scenes were removed from the Book-of-the-Month Club publication and Thomas did not show such obvious interest in the white character, Mary Dalton.

Wright_richard In 1944 Wright left Communist Party. He spent the summer of 1945 as an artist-in-residence at the Bread Loaf School for writers in Middlebury, Vermont, and then went to France with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. During his years in France, Wright spent much of his time supporting nationalist movements in Africa. In 1953 he travelled in Africa, gathering material for BLACK POWER (1954), and witnessing the rise of the Pan-African movement. Among his other works in the 1950s were SAVAGE HOLIDAY (1954), about a white man caught in a web of violence, THE COLOR CURTAIN (1956), about Asia, PAGAN SPAIN (1957), a travel book of a Catholic country full of contradictions, and WHITE MAN, LISTEN! (1958), a collection of lectures on racial injustice. Wright’s last short story, ‘Big Black Good Man’, which originally was published in Esquire and was collected in EIGHT MEN (1961), was set in Copenhangen and dealt with prejudices. THE LONG DREAM (1958), a novel set in Mississippi, had a poor reception. Its sequel, Island of Hallucination, set in Paris, was not published. “Everything in the book happened, but I’ve twisted characters so that people won’t recognise them,” said Wright to his agent. AMERICAN HUNGER, a sequel to Black Boy, appeared in 1977.

Wright distanced in the last years of his life from his associates. He suffered from poor health and financial difficulties and grew suspicious about the activities of CIA in Paris – in which he was right. Wright’s plans to move to London were rejected by the British officials. In 1959 he began composing haiku, producing almost four thousand of them. Wright died nearly penniless at the age of fifty-two in Paris, on November 28, 1960. At his request, his body was cremated and his ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of Black Boy. Wright’s daughter Julia has claimed that her father was murdered. Upon his death, Wright left behind an unfinished book on French West Africa. His travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, appeared in 2001.