In 1940, one Black novelist dared to show America what white supremacy did to one Black man. When “Native Son” appeared on America’s bookshelves, it became an instant bestseller, the first title by an African-American author selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It also introduced the world to the complicated protagonist of “Native Son,” Chicago’s Bigger Thomas, who was driven to murder a white woman through his terror of white people, not because of hate. Wright, as an accomplished writer, a prophet, and a leftist, helped cut the path on which Barack Obama walked into Chicago’s South Side, onto the local and national political stage, and now, the White House.
Richard Wright, the grandson of slaves, was born on a plantation in Mississippi in 1908. Shuffled between Mississippi and Memphis for most of his childhood, Wright published his first short story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” when he was 15. In 1927, after graduating high school, Wright moved to Chicago, where he worked for the post office and wrote in his spare time. During the Great Depression, Wright affiliated with the Communist Party, and Wright penned many of his earliest works for leftist publications. Richard Wright’s career blossomed after he moved to New York in 1937. He mentored Ralph Ellison, published an acclaimed book of short stories called “Uncle Tom’s Children,” and with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, wrote “Native Son,” published in 1940.
“Native Son” was criticized by many people for its violence. Black critics targeted Wright for writing a spectacle that seemed to confirm white America’s worst racist fantasies about Black men. But the book catapulted Wright to the top echelon of American letters. He published his autobiography, “Black Boy,” in 1945.
After World War II, Richard Wright expatriated to France, where he fell in with noted existentialist writer/philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He traveled to Africa in the 1950s, where he contracted dysentery. The illness contributed to Wright’s failing health before his death in Paris in 1960 of a heart attack. Wright was only 52.
Richard Wright greatly influenced the mindset of white liberals in the 1940s and 50s, and his work inspired the Black activists of the 1960s. “Wright,” said Amiri Baraka, “was one of the people who made me conscious of the need to struggle.” Without a doubt, Wright inspired Barack Obama, too.