Wright, Richard 1908–1960
An American short story writer and novelist, Wright was praised for his early realistic portraits of the experiences, fears, and frustrations of southern blacks. Wright was a spokesman for black rights and beliefs, and his early work depicts a southern society that exhibits few outside influences. His later work, of which Native Son is an example, shows both broader scope and the author's philosophical movement from political naiveté to Marxist belief, and finally to an anti-Marxist attitude. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9.)
Richard Wright was a Black man born on a white, Mississippi plantation, and carried, by fits and starts, from one white, southern town to the next. In short, he was born into the antagonistic context of hostile whites wielding power against him. In this, his background mirrors our majority Black experience. And so, we readily accept the validity of Native Son/Bigger Thomas, who pits himself against overwhelming, white force. Moreover, Native Son (undoubtedly Wright's most influential book) conforms to white standards we have swallowed regarding literary weight: It is apparently symbolic (rather than realistic), "serious" (unrelievedly grim), socio-political (rather than "personal") in its scale, and not so much "emotional" as impassioned in its deliberate execution.
Given the antagonistic premise of Native Son/the personal beginnings of Richard Wright, a Black man on enemy turf, it follows that his novel should pull you forward with its furious imagination, saturate the reader with varieties of hatred, deal horror, climax in violence, and ram hard—ram hard—against a destiny of doom. But suppose the premise is a different one? (pp. 5-6)
June Jordan, "On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred" (copyright © 1974 June Jordan), in Black World, Vol. XXIII, No. 10, August, 1974, pp. 4-8.∗
Wright's stories of helpless or long-suffering Blacks victimized by societal and individual White brutality mark the beginning of a new era in Black fiction and even his least important pieces contain unforgettable scenes and characters that burn their way into the reader's consciousness; characteristic is the savage sequence of events of "Big Boy Leaves Home," climaxed by a lynching which leaves the protagonist completely lost, alienated from life, a victim of meaningless and unjustified racial hatred and bigotry. But for all his talent, Wright's people—misunderstood, exploited, vilely misused by Whites—tend to be almost as one-dimensional as many of the stereotypes of the proletarian short fiction of the thirties. As a sad and moving testimonial to the evil of racism and its effect upon a gifted and bitterly disillusioned human being, Uncle Tom's Children and Eight Men constitute a disturbing and towering and permanent landmark in the literary history of Black-White relations, and their influence upon the younger generation of Black writers was and continues to be profound. (pp. 233-34)
William Peden, "The Black Explosion," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 231-41.∗
With the rise of black studies programs throughout the country, an omnibus collection of Wright's work was inevitable. The author's widow, Ellen Wright, and Michel Fabre … have assembled a broad sampling of Wright's work…. Although the [Richard Wright Reader] is weighted toward Wright's fiction, there are representative selections from his correspondence, his poetry, his political and literary essays, and his travel writing. (p. 46)
Surveying its scope, we see that a man's past is never really dead. For Wright, the formative experiences were his mother's religious fanaticism (she was a Seventh-day Adventist), with its crippling repressions and proscriptions, and the virulent racism that confronted him at nearly every stage of his determined search for self-realization. Brutalized and misunderstood by both his family and his society, Wright developed personal characteristics that were reflected in most of his writing: rebelliousness, introversion, a quest for selfhood, a longing for stable and meaningful values, an appetite for violence.
The editors lead off with a segment from Black Boy that depicts Wright's adolescent struggle to educate himself beyond his station with forbidden library books…. He had already outgrown the one-dimensional identity whites had designed for him and was learning to hate instead of fear them. "It was probably a mere accident that I never killed," he comments...
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The principal value of any reader is that it can present in a single volume a broad sampling of a master's work. The publication of the "Richard Wright Reader" is to be applauded on this account, because the range of subject matter and technique Mr. Wright commanded have been lost to the audience that knows him only as the "angry" author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy." Without disparaging either novel, one can acknowledge that they offer a limited portrait of the artist at a distinct time and place in his career; the selections in this book remind us that Mr. Wright's career spanned 22 productive years.
It is not difficult to find reasons for the fascination Mr. Wright's life and work continue to have for black writers. As Mr. Fabre [the co-editor] often indicates in his notes, Mr. Wright was a conscious artist, a writer who learned from his reading of other masters, who employed inventive literary techniques to dramatize his knowledge of black language and culture. The pattern of Mr. Wright's early life mirrored the mass migration of blacks from South to North, from rural areas to the cities, from communal folk life to urban alienation. In "Black Boy," "Lawd Today" and "Native Son" the promise and bitter disappointment of these historic movements are captured. Mr. Wright's later years reflect the intellectual odyssey of black people in the second half of the 20th century. He examined the legacy of the African past; he documented the...
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Uncle Tom and Sambo have disappeared from contemporary black literature. The black rebel, driven to assert himself, often violently, has replaced the acquiescent victim…. The writer most frequently credited with making the Negro "visible" is Richard Wright…. Offering historical and sociological, as well as psychological insights into the American character, Wright examines the rebel, his behavior and motivations, his background. Products of a lower-class black environment, Wright's rebels are well acquainted with hunger, disease, poverty. They learn quickly from frightened mothers and beaten fathers not to expect much from America. Their dreams of power are undercut by the reality of Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination. Ambition is discouraged; impotency reinforced. All entrances and exits are blocked. Trapped, Wright's black man may choose to suffer his fate passively; he may reluctantly accept his status as a victim. But not for long. Wright's victims are generally minor characters or else they evolve into sullen rebels. (pp. 4-5)
Wright's rebels [are] lonely, alienated individuals [who] seek affirmation in action. Passion, impulsiveness, and often violence characterize many of Wright's protagonists. Most are nonreflective and unable to articulate their agony. Driven by explosive emotions, they seek escape in alcohol, sex, and brutal encounters. Some leave the repressive South for the "promised land." Movement from town to city, job to job is common. Family and friends disperse; new alliances are formed but inevitably nothing changes. Disenchantment grows, finally erupting in violence. Meaning is found not in the past, but in the present. The rebel's identity depends on action…. Wright's rebels feel most exhilarated, most alive when they have taken life. (p. 6)
Wright's strongest fiction, written before he left the United States, deals with the problems of lower class Southern and Northern Negroes. (p. 7)
For most of Wright's protagonists the only alternative is violent rebellion if they are to replace self-contempt with self-respect. Persecuted for years, they become powder kegs of rage waiting to be ignited. The pattern is established in Uncle Tom's Children, Southern tales depicting the development of Negro victim into black rebel. The seeds of Northern defiance are planted in the South where a gentle minister helplessly watches his congregation starve; a Negro woman is beaten while trying to protect her son; a hard working farmer discovers that his wife is "fair game" for whites; and a Negro youth witnesses his friends' brutal murder and mutilation. Two of the stories—"Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star"—written during Wright's communist period, suggest radical political action as a possible solution for the Negro's troubles, but they are not representative of the collection, which pits individual blacks against villainous whites. (p. 18)
Native Son serves as Wright's warning to white America to recognize her invisible sons before they ruthlessly judge and condemn their country. With nothing to live for, his characters are willing to die for freedom. The more intelligent and sensitive they are, the more they threaten society, as Cross Damon proves when a sense of powerlessness drives him to play God in The Outsider. Despite Wright's insistence that race is only incidental to the novel, evidence indicates otherwise. "Damon's crimes were part and parcel of the everyday life of man, most particularly Black men." What distinguishes Damon from Wright's other black rebels is his philosophical temperament, his tendency to analyze his actions. In other respects he fits the tradition of Wright's persecuted protagonists. Though well educated, he is frustrated and … locked into a monotonous, demeaning post office job and an unhappy marriage…. Although he lies and kills, he is able to deceive the Communists and Eva, his white girlfriend, by acting naive and innocent. In fact, the whole novel focuses on his role playing, his attempt to take advantage of a train wreck and assume a new identity in New York. But Cross can no more change his behavior and escape his problem than Bigger can.
Intended as an existential hero of any race, he is really a "vicious, angry … intellectual version of [the primitive] Bigger Thomas." Both manipulate people in order to feel powerful. (pp. 21-2)
Wright's black Christianity emphasizes humility, submission, and other worldliness—all of which consign Negroes to living deaths. In Black Boy, Native Son, and "The Man Who Lived Underground," autocratic churches, self-serving preachers, and hysterical congregations exude death and darkness. Protagonists like Bigger Thomas and Fred Daniels find little in religion to guide them and much to make them rebel. (p. 32)
In Black Power Wright examined Christianity's destructive impact on Africans and Afro-Americans. Both British imperialists and American slave masters, he believed, used the church to tame "the savages." Unknowingly missionaries contributed to white supremacy with unfortunate consequences for the blacks. Africans were treated as pagan children unable to govern themselves. Their traditions were labelled barbarous; their high priests and medicine men were stripped of authority, and the natives were made dependent on whites. Severe psychological problems...
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