The revolutionary legacy of Richard Wright

David Thurston in Nucomintern:

Wright was born near Natchez, Mississipi a century ago in 1908.  Early in life, while living in Memphis, Wright’s father abandoned the family.  Soon afterward, his mother suffered a severe stroke, leaving her disabled, and leaving Richard Wright and his brother Leon to live at the mercy of a their extended family.  Wright’s early life is powerfully recounted in many biographies, but the most vivid source is Black Boy, his own autobiography, published in 1946.

In Black Boy, hunger serves as a powerful running metaphor, a literal description of Wright’s condition for much of his childhood, but also a way of describing his own desire to live beyond the boundaries proscribed by Jim Crow segregation in the South.

He writes:

Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant.  Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly… Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. (BB: 14-15)

As Wright grew older, he came to love reading and desperately sought whatever literary material he could find.  This was quite controversial in the household of his grandmother, who viewed any secular reading as the work of the devil.  Wright links his physical hunger to the hunger for knowledge in this moving passage:

School opened and I began the seventh grade.  My old hunger was still with me and I lived on what I did not eat.  Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from the greens kept me going.  Of an evening I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of the smelling meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen and I would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.  My mind would drift into a fantasy and I would imagine myself a son in a family that had meat on the table at each meal; then I would become disgruntled with my futile daydreams and would rise and shut the window to bar the torturing scent of meat. (BB: 137)

Throughout Wright’s years in the South, the threat of brutal racist violence cast a pall across his life.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)