September 4th – Richard Wright

“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”

Richard Wright

Author Richard Wright was born September 4th, 1908, on a Mississippi Plantation twenty-two miles east of Natchez. Wright outlines his terrible childhood in his memoir Black Boy, published in 1945, including his father abandoning his family, and being fed alcoholic drinks at the age of 6. Poverty and his mother’s ill health forced Wright to move around between relatives throughout his childhood. He never completed high school, but pursued writing from an early age and with dogged determination. His first story, The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre, was published when he was fifteen. 

In the 1920s, living in Memphis and working as a dishwasher and delivery boy, he gained access to the local library through a white coworker and read incessantly. Through books he discovered the power of language and how words could be yielded to change society. 

In 1927 he moved to Chicago, and there became involved with the Communist party, publishing many pieces in communist-leaning periodicals. In 1932 he began writing for the Federal Writer’s Project, and in 1933 he founded the South Side Writers group, whose members included Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker. 

By 1935, Wright had completed the manuscript of his first novel, Cesspool, which was rejected by eight publishers (it was published posthumously as Lawd Today in 1963).

In 1937 he relocated again, to New York City, where he became the Bureau Chief for the communist publication The Daily Worker, writing over 200 articles for the publication over the next 2 years. In 1938 he met Ralph Ellison, and was awarded the Story magazine first prize of $500 for his short story “Fire and Cloud.” Story Press negotiated with Harper publishers to publish his stories into a collection. The resulting book, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), was well received and sold enough to allow Wright to move to Harlem and begin working on his next novel. That year he was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Native Son, his breakthrough novel, was published in 1940. It sold 315,000 copies in the first three months after publication, was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first by an African-American author. In March 1941 it opened as a play on Broadway with Orson Welles as director. 

In August 1939, with Ralph Ellison as best man, Wright married Dhimah Rose Meidman, a modern-dance teacher of Russian Jewish ancestry. It was a short-lived marriage that ended a year later. On March 12, 1941, he married Ellen Poplar (née Poplowitz), a Communist organizer from Brooklyn. Wright had reportedly proposed to Ellen prior to marrying Meidman, (and shortly after meeting her). Ellen had wanted to wait before marrying to ensure they were in love, and some say that he got married to another woman to spite her. Even still, they married shortly after his first divorce, and went on to have  two daughters: Julia, born in 1942, and Rachel, born in 1947. 

In collaboration with Edwin Rosskam, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, Wright published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States,in October 1941 to wide critical acclaim. His 1945 novel, Black Boy, was the fourth largest selling non-fiction book of that year, and is still considered a quintessential American memoir. 

In 1947, wanting to escape the racism and difficulties of being a interracial couple in the US, Wright and Ellen moved to Paris. He never returned to America aside from brief trips in 1949 and 1950.

Wright died in Paris on November 28, 1960 at the age of 52. Although his cause of death was reported as a heart attack, his daughter Julia claimed he was murdered. Four of his books were published after his death, Eight Men, Lawd Today, Rite of Passage and A Father’s Law, and many full length biographies have been written about him, including Richard Wright (1968) by Constance Webb and Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001) by Hazel Rowley.

In 1991 the Library of America issued a two-volume set of Wright’s major works (Early Works, and Later Works). The set was edited by Arnold Rampersad, professor of English at Stanford University, who used the original manuscripts submitted by Wright to publishers, thereby presenting these books as Richard Wright wanted them to be seen.

Lesson from Wright 

Wright paved the way for many black writers behind him, including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Chester Himes and Gwendolyn Brooks, and his unflinching portrayal of the brutalities faced by African Americans in America helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With no education or family to back him, he set the presence and paved a well-lit path so others could follow. 

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