Wright’s family soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, his father Nathaniel, a former sharecropper, abandoned them and his mother, a schoolteacher, had to support them on her own. Wright, his brother, and mother soon moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with relatives. In Jackson, Wright grew up and attended public high school. In 1916, Wright, his brother, and their mother returned to Mississippi, moving in with Margaret Wilson, Wright’s grandmother. Later, the family moved in with Wright’s aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas, but left after whites murdered Wright’s uncle. At the age of fifteen, Wright penned his first story, ‘The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre’. It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. Here, he formed some lasting impressions of American racism before moving back to Memphis in 1927.
Wright moved to Chicago, where he began to write and became active in the John Reed Club. As the club was dominated by the Communist Party, Wright established a relationship with a number of party members. A power struggle within the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club led to the dissolution of the club’s leadership, Wright was told he had the support of the club’s party members if he was willing to join the party. He accepted, and was promptly elected leader of the club.
Through the club, Wright edited Left Front, a magazine that the Communist Party ultimately shut down in 1937, despite Wright’s repeated protests. Throughout this period, Wright also contributed to the New Masses magazine.
While Wright was at first pleased by the positive relations with white communists in Chicago, he was later humiliated in New York City by white communists who rescinded an offer to find housing for Wright because of his race. To make matters worse, Wright was quickly denounced as a bourgeois intellectual by black communists who were perturbed that Wright did not speak as they did, even though he had been forced, by circumstance, to end his public education after the completion of grammar school.
Ultimately, Wright’s insistence that young communist writers be given space to cultivate their talents and his working relationship with a Black nationalist communist led to a public falling out with the party and the leading African American communist, Buddy Nealson. Wright was threatened at knife point by fellow-traveling coworkers, denounced as a Trotskyite in the street by strikers and physically assaulted by former comrades when he tried to join them during the 1936 May Day march.
In 1937, Richard Wright moved to New York, while he had fallen out with the Chicago chapter of the Communist Party, Wright forged new ties with the party after establishing himself in New York. He worked there on a Writers’ Project guidebook to the city entitled New York Panorama (1938) and wrote the book’s essay on the Harlem neighborhood. He also became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine, New Challenge.
Wright quickly gained national attention for his collection of four short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). This work fictionalized the incidents of lynching in the Deep South. The collection earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first novel, Native Son (1940).
Native Son was the first Book of the Month Club selection by an African American author. The lead character, Bigger Thomas, served to represent the limitations that society placed on African Americans, and illustrated that Thomas could only gain his own agency and self-knowledge by committing heinous acts. Wright was criticized for both works’ concentration on violence, and, in the case of Native Son, for portraying a black person in ways which might seem to confirm whites’ worst fears.
Wright is also renowned for the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), which describes his early life from Roxie through his move to Chicago, his clashes with his Seventh-day Adventist family, his troubles with white employers and social isolation. American Hunger, (published posthumously in 1977) was originally intended as the second book of Black Boy and is restored to this form in the Library of America edition.
This book details his involvement with the John Reed Clubs and the Communist Party, which he left in 1942, though the book implies that it was earlier, and the fact was not made public until 1944. In its restored form, its diptych structure mirrors the certainties and intolerance of organized communism, (the “bourgeois” books and condemned members) with similar qualities in fundamentalist organized religion. Due to McCarthyism, Wright was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio bosses in the 1950s.
In 1942, Wright formally broke with the Communist Party, as he was frustrated by the party’s theoretical rigidity and disapproved of purges in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Wright continued to believe in far-left democratic solutions to political problems.
Wright moved to Paris in 1946, and became a permanent American expatriate. In Paris, he became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus while going through an Existentialist phase well depicted in his second novel, The Outsider (1953) which describes an African American character’s involvement with the Communist Party in New York. Acclaimed as the first American existential novel, he warned that the black man had awakened in a disintegrating society not ready to include him. In 1954 he published a minor novel, Savage Holiday (1954). After becoming a French citizen in 1947, he continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa, and these experiences led to many nonfiction works. One of these nonfiction works is Black Power (1954), a commentary on the emerging nations of Africa.
In 1949, Wright contributed to the anti-communist anthology The God That Failed; his essay had been published in the Atlantic Monthly three years earlier. This led to an invitation to become involved with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which he rejected, correctly suspecting that it had connections with the CIA. That organization, with the FBI, had Wright under surveillance from 1943.
In 1955, he visited Indonesia for the Bandung Conference and recorded his observations about the event in his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Wright was upbeat about the possibilities posed by this meeting between recently-oppressed nations.
Other of Richard Wright’s works include White Man, Listen! (1957), and another novel, The Long Dream in 1958 as well as a collection of short stories, Eight Men, published after his death in 1961. His works primarily deal with the poverty, anger, and the protests of northern and southern urban black Americans.
In the last years of his life, Richard Wright became enamored with the Japanese poetry form haiku and he wrote over 4,000 of them. In 1998 a book was published (“Haiku: This Other World” ISBN 0-385-72024-6) with the 817 haiku that he preferred.
Wright contracted aerobic dysentery on a visit to Africa in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health deteriorated over the next three years. He died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 52. He is interred there in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. Wright’s daughter Julia has claimed that her father was murdered.
Upon his death, Wright left behind an unfinished book A Father’s Law. It looks at a black policeman and the son he suspects of murder. Wright’s daughter, Julia recently published A Father’s Law in January 2008. His travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, appeared in 2001, published by the Mississippi University Press.
Some of the more candid passages dealing with race, sex, and politics in Wright’s books had been cut or omitted before original publication. But in 1991, unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy, and his other works were published. In addition, a previously unpublished novella, Rite of Passage, appeared in 1994.
In 1939, he married Dhima Rose Meadman, a modern-dance teacher of Russian Jewish ancestry, but the two separated shortly thereafter. In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants and a Communist Party organizer in Brooklyn. They had two daughters: Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.
Wright’s books published during the 1950s disappointed some critics, who said that his move to Europe alienated him from American blacks then separated him from his emotional and psychological roots. Many of Wright’s works failed to satisfy the rigid standards of the New Criticism. During the 1950s Wright grew more internationalist in outlook. While he accomplished much as an important public literary and political figure with a worldwide reputation, his very creative work did. decline.
However, recent critics have called for a reassessment of Wright’s later work in view of his philosophical project. Notably, Paul Gilroy has argued that “the depth of his philosophical interests has been either overlooked or misconceived by the almost exclusively literary enquiries that have dominated analysis of his writing.”His most significant contribution, however, was his desire to accurately portray blacks to white readers, thereby destroying the white myth of the patient, humorous, subservient black man.
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