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Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908-1960) was an important novelist and short story writer who captured the experience of the Black American in a white-dominated society. He was one of the first to protest the mistreatment of Black people in society and was instrumental in bringing the plight of the African-American community to light in ways that are simultaneously relatable and shocking. His struggles during childhood and throughout his life formed the foundation for his beliefs and fanned the flames of his passion for equality.

Richard Nathaniel Wright Biography

Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908 on a plantation near Natchez and Roxie, Mississippi. His grandparents were formerly enslaved and were freed after the Civil War. His father, Nathaniel, was illiterate and worked as a sharecropper. His mother Ella was a devoted wife, nurturing mother, and an educated woman, who was Wright's primary source of support. She was a school teacher and became his only parent after his father abandoned the family to be with another woman when Wright was only five years old.

Richard Wright, an image of discrimination, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Richard Wright witnessed racism and classism his entire life.

After Richard Wright's father left, the family fell into deep poverty and moved to Memphis seeking better opportunities. Wright's mother worked long hours to support the family on her own. However, her efforts were not enough. During this period in his life, a young Richard Wright stayed in an orphanage for a short period of time. Soon after, his mother fell ill. Richard Wright was back with his family, and they all moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to be with Ella's mother and father.

Ella's health never fully recouped, and she would often struggle physically. For brief moments, she sent Richard Wright and his younger brother to live with her sister Maggie and Maggie's husband Silas Hoskins. However, when Silas mysteriously disappeared, Richard Wright and his sibling soon returned to their mother and maternal grandparents' home. It's believed that he was killed by a white man protecting his business. Ella had suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving her mostly incapacitated. Her sons, now under the care of her devout Seventh Day Adventist parents, were often subjected to beatings for wrongdoings.

Seventh-day Adventists are the largest Advent Protestant denomination. Adventists are a Christian sect that was founded in the United States in the 19th century.

Although he struggled at home during this time, this period also marked a moment in Wright's life that was the most stable educationally. He began school at 12, and finally experienced an entire year of formal education. Richard Wright first attended the local Seventh-Day Adventist school taught by his aunt, and also maintained enrollment and consistent attendance at Jim Hill Public School. He would eventually drop out of school, only earning a ninth-grade education.

When Wright was only 16, he saw his first piece of writing published. The Southern Register, a local Black newspaper, published his story "The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre" (1924). Although the story's contents have since been lost to time, the title has recently inspired a new operetta. Wright worked several random jobs for the following two years, from 1925 to 1927.

After a successful academic career in junior high, Wright enrolled in the black-only Lanier High School, taking mathematics, history and English courses. However, the growing pressure to help support the family proved too much, and he dropped out of high school in ninth grade to earn money and help support the family. He continued to pursue his education his own way, discovering writers such as Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), and H. L. Mencken (1880-1956).

At 17 years old, he left his family to move to Memphis. There, Wright right found work as a post office clerk. Still plagued by the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and unable to secure a library card on his own, he borrowed one from a white coworker and checked out books under the guise that they were for a white man. In this manner, Wright gained access to a more diverse education than he could ever hope for in a traditional schooling environment. He read books that were deemed inappropriate for black citizens under Jim Crow and gained insight that few other African-Americans could have at the time.

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. The laws lasted from the 1880s into the 1960s and regulated what entrances African-Americans could use, where they could sit on a train or bus, and even who they could and could not marry. This form of legalized racial segregation made it difficult for African-Americans to secure a fair wage, proper education, and safe living conditions.

Now earning enough money to support his mother and brother, they joined him in Memphis, and the trio soon moved to Chicago, escaping the oppressive Jim Crow South. However, the Great Depression soon hit, and Wright lost his job as a post office clerk. Like many others, he was forced to go on relief to survive and take on other menial jobs. Wright also involved himself with the Communist Party at this time, and he began writing for The Daily Worker and New Masses, both Communist publications. Wright also published "Superstition" (1931) his first major story, in Abbott's Monthly.

The Great Depression during the 1930s in the United States marks a time of immense economic downturn with the stock market crash. During this time the U.S. economy shrank by about one third, and the unemployment rate shot up to 25%. In a time when African-Americans were already struggling, they were a demographic that was hit the hardest. They were some of the first to be laid off from jobs and saw almost double the rate of unemployment when compared to white America.

In 1937, Wright moved to New York and worked as the Harlem editor on two publications, The Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the Communist Party, and The New Challenge, a literary magazine aimed at providing up-and-coming African-American creatives an outlet to share their views and unique perspectives. Wright published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of short stories, in 1938. Then, after a brief affair and marriage with a white dancer, he married and had two children with Ellen Poplar, a white female member of the Communist Party.

Richard Wright, place marker honoring writer Richard Wright, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A commemorative place marker honoring Richard Wright and his quest for racial equality and freedom.

One of his most celebrated pieces of work, Black Boy (1945), is an autobiographical memoir about his time growing up in the Jim Crow era. Wright soon broke from the Communist Party and, weary of the treatment he and other Black people were receiving in American society, he moved to the more accepting Paris. Living as an expatriate for the rest of his years, he met and formed a lasting relationship with Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

In the more accepting culture of France, he continued to write, producing pieces exploring his experiences with the Communist Party, as well as a collection of over 4,000 haikus, which he wrote as a way to come to terms with the beauty of the Southern landscape and the grotesque treatment he experienced there. In 1960, Wright died in a clinic after spending more than 15 years in Paris. The cause of death was determined to be a heart attack. He was 52 years old and left behind his wife and two daughters.

Richard Wright's Accomplishments

Richard Wright came from an impoverished background, was raised by a single mother, overcame childhood abuse, and became one of the most well-known Black writers of his time. He broke social boundaries in his personal life by marrying out of his race, fathering two children, and being the sole provider for his mother and younger brother while a child. One of the most monumental factors in his life was when he applied for and received the Guggenheim Fellowship. Earning this recognition gave him the freedom to complete writing Native Son (1940), one of his most influential works to this day.

The Guggenheim Fellowship is a grant awarded annually to individuals who show promise in scholarship and the arts. The amount granted to each recipient varies depending on their needs and the scope of the project.

Richard Wright Novels

While Richard Wright wrote many pieces of fiction and non-fiction, including some lost to history, two of the most celebrated pieces are Native Son and Black Boy.

Native Son

Published in 1940, Native Son is told from the perspective of protagonist Bigger Thomas, a man who kills a white woman and his girlfriend. It is a reflection on the racial tensions present in early 1900s Chicago and is inspired by Wright's own experiences. Bigger is an African-American man in his early 20s living in poverty in Chicago. Although there is no excuse for his actions, the systemic subjugation, and oppression he faces show a cyclical relationship between his heinous crime and the fear caused by racism and discrimination pervasive within society.

Richard Wright, an advertisement from the motion picture based on Native Son, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Wright's Native Son inspired a film.

Black Boy

Black Boy is a 1945 autobiographical work written by Richard Wright that focuses on his time in the South as a youth. Spanning Wright's early life living under Jim Crow laws, each chapter authentically recounts the painful experiences, embarrassing moments, and dehumanizing treatment the author suffered. Readers learn of the intense hunger, physical beatings, and the psychological and emotional abuse he experienced. Sometimes considered a fictionalized autobiography because of Wright's use of literary techniques often employed in fiction writing, the novel is celebrated as one of his most poignant pieces. At the end, the protagonist surfaces as a completely understood and self-realized black man—an author.

Richard Wright's Themes in His Writing

Author Richard Wright focused the majority of his writing on the social issues and injustices plaguing society during his time. He experienced immense racial oppression, grew up in poverty, and struggled to find his place in a society that was reluctant to accept a Black man as an intellectual and powerful force. The themes in his writing reflect his personal experiences.

Racism

Richard Wright used his platform as a writer to influence the ideas of his contemporary society and authentically portray the Black American experience for a white reader. He humanized Black people and broke the racial stereotype of them being simple, flat, and void of individual thought or identity. Wright's depiction of racism in his writing demonstrates the Black person's struggle and surfaces the damaging effects of racism on society altogether.

Poverty

Growing up Black and in an impoverished atmosphere of extreme violence at home and in public, Wright's pieces often incorporate the damaging effects of poverty on the individual and how that suffering leads to a life of figurative and literal hunger. In Native Son, Wright's protagonist Bigger is an impoverished youth struggling from the effects of unequal education, lack of opportunity, and the violence that poverty brings. He becomes a personified nightmare, and his own fears become the tinder that leads to his murdering two young females. Only through these violent acts does he find himself and his power. For Wright, poverty creates a monster.

Richard Wright Quotes

The following quotes from Richard Wright depict the themes in his writing and tell of his unique life experiences and reflections.

At the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to endure, that was to make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical. The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful."

(Black Boy, Chapter 3)

In Black Boy, Wright reflects on the duality he experienced being a human treated inhumanely, a duality that many Black people could relate to. He indicates how the harsh circumstances of his life made him uniquely aware of how cruel he could be. Wright lived in dichotomy.

My mother's suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering."

(Black Boy, Chapter 3)

Richard Wright realized the damage of racial oppression and poverty in his mother's illness and suffering. He saw her pain as a literal embodiment of hunger, fear, and of a restless spirit created by the socially accepted standards Black people were subjected to.

Richard Wright - Key takeaways

  • Richard Nathaniel Wright was born in 1908 on a small plantation near Natchez and Roxie, Mississippi.
  • His life of struggle and poverty informed his writing and led to Black Boy, an autobiographical piece about the discrimination, oppression, and poverty he experienced growing up in the Jim Crow era.
  • Richard Wright was a self-educated man, relying on other people's library cards and the other little means he had to gain the knowledge and information he felt necessary to be well educated. While he only received up to a ninth-grade education, he read voraciously.
  • Throughout his youth, Richard Wright worked many jobs and was the sole support for his mother and younger brother at an early age.
  • Unsatisfied with how African-Americans were treated in the United States, Wright moved to Paris and became an expatriate.

References

  1. Fig. 2 - "File:Souvenir de Richard Wright - Natchez - Louisiane.jpg" (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=551706) by No machine-readable author provided. PRA assumed (based on copyright claims). is licensed under CC BY 2.5
  2. Fig. 3 - "Native Son (1951) US-rerelease poster" (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118527767) by United States Library of Congress is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Frequently Asked Questions about Richard Wright

Richard Wright was an African-American writer and essayist who wrote influential novels such as Black Boy and Native Son, which helped express the plight of Black people in America.

Black Boy by Richard Wright is based on his own experiences growing up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.

For a time, Richard Wright associated himself with the Communist Party but eventually left, believing that a better way to organize American society must exist. He felt that unequal education, poverty, and violence lead to an unending cycle of fear and violence.

Wright saw reading and writing as a way to escape the oppressive reality he faced as a young man. He wrote his first story as a release from reality.

Richard Wright is important because he was an influential writer who wrote about the discrimination, oppression, and poverty he and others experienced growing up in the Jim Crow era.

Final Richard Wright Quiz

Question

Who is Richard Wright? 

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Answer

Richard Wright was an African-American writer and essayist who wrote influential novels such as Black Boy and Native Son, which helped express the plight of Black people in America.

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Question

What happened to Richard Wright's family that led them to leave their home when he was five years old? 

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Richard Wright's father left the family for another woman. 

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What were Richard Wright's parents' occupations? 

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Richard's father, Nathaniel, was a sharecropper, and his mother was a schoolteacher. 

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Richard Wright lived at all of the following places throughout his childhood EXCEPT:

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his father's parents

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What genre of novel is Black Boy

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Black Boy is an autobiography recounting Wright's experiences growing up in the Jim Crow era. 

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With what political party did Wright identify with for some time? 

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Wright was a member of the Communist Party and married his wife, Ellen Poplar, also a member of the Communist Party. 

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Unhappy with the social situation of Black people in America, Wright moved to...

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Paris

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At the end of his life, what type of poetry did Wright dedicate himself to? 

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Haikus

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How old was Wright before he experienced a full year of education? 

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Wright was twelve years old. 

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The Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Richard Wright to complete which piece of work? 

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Because of the support given to him by the Guggenheim Fellowship, Wright was able to complete Native Son.

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Who wrote Native Son?

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Richard Wright

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How was Native Son influenced by Wright's life? 

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Wright grew up experiencing racism and oppression in the Jim Crow South.

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Who is the protagonist of Native Son?

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Bigger Thomas

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What does Bigger do before his interview? 

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Visit his friends and attempt to convince them to rob a white-owned store.

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Who hires Bigger as their chauffeur? 

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The Daltons.

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Why does Mary Dalton scare Bigger?

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She forgoes social expectations, which could get him in trouble as a Black man with a white woman.

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Who is Mary's Communist boyfriend?

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Jan Erlone

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Why does Bigger kill Mary? 

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He tries to keep her quiet with a pillow so she won't tell her mother he's in her room.

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True or false: Bigger immediately flees after killing Mary

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False.

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Who does Bigger attempt to pin the blame on and why?

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Jan; the Daltons are already suspicious because he's a Communist

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Who is Bessie?

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Bigger's girlfriend, whom he kills

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Why does Max say Bigger committed the crime? 

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He was doing what his oppressive society has conditioned him to.

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How is Bigger a "native son"?

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Bigger is a product of his society and the violence it was built on.

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What is the main theme of the novel?

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Racism and oppression.

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What ultimately happens to Bigger?

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He is sentenced to death.

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