Richard Wright was the first of two sons born to sharecropper Nathan Wright and former schoolteacher Ella Wilson Wright in a village outside Natchez, Mississippi; all four of his grandparents had been slaves. After a move to Memphis, Tennessee, and his father’s desertion before Richard was five, the family’s circumstances became increasingly difficult as their poverty deepened. When, in 1915, Ella became unable to support her sons, they were temporarily placed in the Memphis Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage.
Subsequent relocations moved Richard back and forth between the rural and urban South. In Elaine, Arkansas, in 1917, he encountered firsthand the virulence of southern racism when his uncle was lynched. His mother experienced her first stroke when Richard was ten, and the crisis precipitated their removal to her parents’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, where Richard chafed under the strict constraints placed on his behavior by the religious fundamentalism of his grandmother. Richard set out on his own in 1925, upon graduating as valedictorian from the ninth grade. Heading first to Memphis, he spent two years saving the funds to move his family to Chicago.
Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937 and held a number of jobs, ranging from busboy to insurance salesman to youth counselor to day laborer. In 1935, he secured a position with the Illinois Federal Writers Project, where he worked with other literary apprentices such as Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, and Arna Bontemps.
While working at the post office in Chicago, Wright befriended several Communists and was recruited in 1933 for the John Reed Club, a leftist organization with a literary as well as political emphasis. The fellowship Wright found there provided his first sense of shared purpose with like-minded individuals; moreover, he found in Marxism a systematic explanation for the oppressive circumstances that had defined his own experience.
In late 1933 Wright joined the Communist Party, and he became an eloquent spokesman for its attacks on racial and class injustice. For almost a decade, the party’s doctrines and aims provided the theoretical skeleton upon which Wright’s fiction and journalism were built; he sought to arouse white readers to a fuller awareness of the degradation caused by institutionalized bigotry and to awaken the black masses to their own revolutionary potential. The effect of Wright’s party affiliation upon his creative work is debated among critics, some arguing that it subjected his writing to a doctrinal straitjacket, and others pointing to the coherence that Communist doctrine gave to his perceptions of reality. Wright privately broke with the party in 1942, disillusioned with its attempts to curtail the individual freedom of the artist and its criticism of his novel Native Son (1940) as a counterrevolutionary work.
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Wright’s career marked the first time that an African American’s work so forcefully commanded the attention of the American literary establishment. It did so through uncompromising depictions of the social and moral crisis that racism had precipitated in the United States. In harnessing his anger and alienation into creative channels and giving the oppressed a voice, Wright inspired the following generation of black writers, including Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin. Ironically, the militant racial activism of the 1960’s led to a temporary rejection of Wright’s achievement, despite his courageous political stances. More recently, however, writers and critics are recovering Wright’s legacy and recognizing...
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The poverty, racial hatred, and violence that Richard Nathaniel Wright dramatizes in fiction come directly from his own experience as the child of an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper. Richard was six years old when his father was driven off the land and the family moved to a two-room slum tenement in Memphis, Tennessee. The father deserted the family there. Richard’s mother, Ella Wright, got a job as a cook, leaving Richard and his younger brother Alan alone in the apartment. When his mother became ill, the brothers were put in an orphanage. An invitation for Ella and the boys to stay with a more prosperous relative in Arkansas ended in panic and flight when white men shot Uncle Hoskins, who had offered the Wrights a home. The...
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