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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