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African American author: Richard Wright

One of America’s greatest black writers, Richard Wright was also among the first African
American writers to achieve literary fame and fortune, but his reputation has less to do with the
color of his skin than with the superb quality of his work. He was born and spent the first years of
his life on a plantation, not far from the affluent city of Natchez on the Mississippi River, but his
life as the son of an illiterate sharecropper was far from affluent. Though he spent only a few years
of his life in Mississippi, those years would play a key role in his two most important works:
Native Son, a novel, and his autobiography, Black Boy.
Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908.
His father, Nathaniel, was an illiterate sharecropper and his mother, Ella Wilson, was a well-
educated school teacher. The family’s extreme poverty forced them to move to Memphis when
Richard was six years old. Soon after, his father left the family for another woman and his mother
was forced to work as a cook in order to support the family. Richard briefly stayed in an orphanage
during this period as well. His mother became ill while living in Memphis, so the family moved to
Jackson, Mississippi, and lived with Ella’s mother.

Richard’s grandmother, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, enrolled him in a Seventh Day Adventist
school near Jackson at the age of twelve. He also attended a local public school for a few years. In
the spring of 1924 the Southern Register, a local black newspaper, printed his first story, “The
Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre.” From 1925 to 1927, he worked several menial jobs in Jackson and
Memphis. During this time he continued writing and discovered the works of H.L. Mencken,
Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis.

In 1927 he moved to Chicago, where he became a Post Office clerk until the Great Depression
forced him to take on various temporary positions. During this time he became involved with the
Communist Party, writing articles and stories for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. In April
1931 he published his first major story, “Superstition,” in Abbot’s Monthly.

His ties to the Communist Party continued after moving to New York in 1937. He became the
Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine, New Challenge.
In 1938 four of his stories were collected as Uncle Tom’s Children. He then received a
Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first novel, Native Son (1940). In
1939, he married Dhimah Rose Meadman, a white dancer, but the two separated shortly thereafter.
In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist Party, and they had two
daughters, Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.

In 1944 he broke with the Communist Party but continued to follow liberal ideologies. After
moving to Paris in 1946, Wright became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus while
going through an Existentialist phase best depicted by his second novel, The Outsiders (1953). In
1954 he published a minor novel, Savage Holiday. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, he
continued to travel throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, and these experiences led to a number of
nonfiction works.

In his last years, he was plagued by illness (aerobic dysentery) and financial hardship. Throughout
this period he wrote approximately 4,000 English Haikus (some of which were recently published
for the first time) and another novel, The Long Dream, in 1958. He also prepared another
collection of short stories, Eight Men, which was published after his death on November 28, 1960.

Among his other works are two autobiographies. Black Boy, published in 1945, covered his youth
in the segregated South, and American Hunger, published posthumously in 1977, treated his
membership and disillusionment with the Communist Party.

Many of Wright’s works failed to satisfy the rigid standards of the New Criticism, but his
evolution as a writer has interested readers throughout the world. The importance of his works
comes not from his technique and style, but from the impact his ideas and attitudes have had on
American life. Wright is seen as a seminal figure in the black revolution that followed his earliest
novels. Bigger Thomas, the central figure of Native Son, is a murderer, but his situation galvanized
the thought of black leaders toward the desire to confront the world and help shape the future of
their race.

As his vision of the world extended beyond the U.S., his quest for solutions expanded to include
the politics and economics of emerging third world nations. Wright’s development was marked by
an ability to respond to the currents of the social and intellectual history of his time. 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.
In Native Son, the character Bigger Thomas lives with his mother, sister, and brother in squalid
conditions in Chicago’s South Side. He gets a job as a chauffeur for the Dalton family, white well-
to-do slumlords. He accidentally kills the daughter, Mary Dalton. In his flight from the police, he
deliberately kills his girlfriend, Bessie. He is caught, tried, and sentenced to death for Mary’s

The novel moves with the intensity of a powerfully realistic crime novel. However, it is much more
than that. Wright raises issues concerning the underlying problems of black men living lives that
are stifled by the oppression of racism and classism. Murder is for Bigger a way to feel his own

Although Mary’s death was an accident, Bigger begins to relish the powerful feeling being in the
company of the police as they try to solve the mystery of Mary’s disappearance. Killing her has
defined his sense of importance.

Wright presents a grim picture of human degradation its destructive results caused by racism. At
Bigger’s trial, through his communist-oriented lawyer, Max, Wright presents a worldview of a
more equitable society that would, possibly, not have produced a person like Bigger.

Native Son greatly influenced African-American authors of realistic fiction of the post-World War
II era such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, John A. Williams, Ann Petry, and others—and
continues to be an important classic for contemporary writers.

It was adapted for film. Richard Wright, unfortunately, took the role of Bigger in the first
production, which premiered in 1950. He was clearly twice the age of the character, which
contributed to the negative reception of the movie. Oprah Winfrey played Bigger’s mother in a
1986 remake of the adaptation. This movie fared better and was nominated for awards (Critics
Award and Independent Spirit Award).Also, there have been theater productions. The latest was
very well received in 2006 at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle.

Micsoniu Ana-Maria
Studii culturale anglo-americane
Anul I