Author Richard Wright (pictured) and his writings have left an indelible mark on the historical landscape of African-American literature. Crafting his words in the fiction and non-fiction worlds, Wright’s legacy as an author who tackled controversial topics, such as race and poverty, from the Black perspective with unflinching honesty remains significant to this day.
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Wright was born near the small town of Roxie, Miss., on this day in 1908. As he grew in to adulthood, he resisted his Seventh Day Adventist upbringing and clashed with the grandmother and aunt who raised him. Although he excelled as a student, the pressures of helping his family by working would halt his academic ascension. Still, Wright had an early knack and flair for words, penning his first story at age 15, which was published by a local Black newspaper.
Watch Richard Wright’s life here:
Just before turning 20 years of age, Wright moved to Chicago in 1927 and became a postal clerk. In his off time, he studied the writings of other authors and honed his style. He was eventually laid off due to the strains of the Great Depression in the early 1930s and went on to join the Marxist and politically left-leaning John Reed Club, where he was exposed to the radical politics of the Communist Party. Wright would eventually become a Communist Party member and thrived in the community as a celebrated writer, working extensively in left-wing publications as an editor along with publishing works.
While White Communists embraced him in Chicago, he was not received as warmly by his comrades in New York City because of racism. Black communists also shunned Wright because of his well-spoken and groomed appearance, marking him a Black man trying to assimilate in to White society. Unknown to the group, Wright never finished his public school education and was largely self-taught.
Moving to New York in 1937, Wright rebuilt broken ties with other communists and worked heavily as a writer and advocate for the party’s ideals. He then forged a friendship with “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison, sparking a bond that lasted for years.
Wright’s collection of short stories titled “Uncle Tom’s Children” debuted in 1938, becoming a huge success and leading him to receive a fellowship so that he could move to Harlem and begin work on perhaps his most-celebrated title in “Native Son” (pictured right). The story centered around lead character “Bigger Thomas,” with Wright painting the tortured Thomas as a man who used violence in an attempt to make sense of the limits placed upon him by a racist society. In 1945, the semi-autobiographical “Black Boy” hit the shelves and also received both praise and heavy criticism.
Wright moved to Paris in 1946, becoming an expatriate, and later became closely associated with existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre and philosopher Albert Camus. Although he never returned to America’s shores, Wright traveled extensively between Europe, Africa, and Asia, writing several non-fiction works that were both critical of communism and America’s racist policies.
He did not enjoy the fame of his earlier works in his later career, but still remained an outspoken critic of the plight of the Black intellectual in America. Once friends, Wright and author James Baldwin would clash over Baldwin’s criticism of Bigger Thomas’ actions in “Native Son.” Wright would pass away at age 52 in Paris in the fall of 1960, leaving behind a wife and two daughters.
Although much of his work wasn’t as lauded as his signature pieces, Wright is celebrated by many in the world of literature for his willingness to create strong, if confrontational, characters that shattered the image of the meek, sniveling Black man. Wright was justly honored in 2009 with a U.S. postage stamp (pictured above), bearing his image in a snow-swept Chicago setting as part of a celebration of literary figures.