Wright showed U.S. where it was wrong, stirred others

gharden@tri-statedefender.com | 6/4/2008, 7 p.m.


During his Memphis days, Richard Wright began the serious reading that he hoped would help him develop the skills of the authors he admired. (Courtesy photo)
It has been nearly 100 years since Richard Wright was born, 63 years since he published “Black Boy,” his autobiography about the issues that encumber the development of black masculinity, and 48 years since his death. Yet his presence is ever with us in his writings and in the influence he has had on black writers and others consigned to the role of outsiders on American scene. Wright’s worldview was developed during the first 19 years of his life, which he spent in the South, including about two years in Memphis.

He was born near Natchez, Miss., Sept. 4, 1908, and as an adolescent wanted to leave the South, because he felt it denied him his humanity, and settle in the “Promised Land” of the North. But at first he only was able to get as far as Memphis. Once in the city, according to Margaret Walker, Wright’s biographer and friend, “He headed to Beale Street, which he knew was the heart of the black world. Memphis served for Wright as a kind of way station, or halfway house between the rural South and the urban North.”

During his Memphis days, Wright began the serious reading that he hoped would help him develop the skills of the authors he admired. Walker, whose book is titled, “Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius,” writes that while Wright was anxious to leave the South, “He did not yet know what he was running toward, but he knew what he was running from. He was seeking to find himself, that inner man, who was both real, human, and kind.”

 Walker writes. “I was there when Wright was writing his first professional prose. I knew Richard Wright in the late 1930s when we were working together on the Chicago Writers’ Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). We were close friends then, and when he went to New York, we corresponded over a period of two years. This includes the time period when he was writing ‘Native Son.’ ” Walker, who taught at Jackson State University, was a friend of Juanita V. Williamson’s, a LeMoyne-Owen College professor, who sometimes invited Walker to lecture at the college.

One of Wright’s earliest stories was published in 1931 in Abbott’s Monthly, a magazine started by Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender. As a child in Mississippi, Wright had sold the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers and from them he no doubt became aware of the strident voices being raised against racism. Abbott advocated self-defense when blacks were abused by whites. Wright’s importance is that he was a precursor of the views that produced the civil rights movement and the Black Arts Movement. He anticipated the black nationalism of the 1960s.

As a young man, Wright joined the Communist Party but became disillusioned and quit because he said it was intolerant, just as he had become disillusioned with religion because he felt it exploited people. In 1940, five years before “Black Boy” was published, “Native Son” was released to rave reviews and became the first book by a black author to become a Book-of-the Month selection.

Wright was among the first to use the term “Black Power,” in a book with that title in 1954.  His reference was to the growing strength of African nations as they gained independence and their need to arm themselves to forestall outside domination. He was an early critic of the United States’ foreign policy decisions as they affected Africa.

Protest literature has a long history and voices of protest, such as Wright’s, may well be the most patriotic voices of all. Even Thomas Jefferson said, “I like a little rebellion now and then.” Those in a free society who are willing to confront injustice and speak the truth may have the best interests of their country at heart.

Wright, who died Nov. 28, 1960, at age 52 in Paris, helped advance the careers of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and William Gardner Smith. Baldwin said, ‘’He was black and he was a writer. He proved it could be done—proved it to me.”  Today ‘’Native Son’’ and ‘’Black Boy’’ are considered classics. “Native Son,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, is “the single most influential shaping force in modern Black literary history.”