Understanding Richard Wright

Wright in Paris, c. 1949.

Wright in Paris, c. 1949.


In the southern states of America, when this country struggled with changes, people not only suffered from poverty but also endured racism and violence.  These are experiences colored people had to live with; Richard Wright was no exception to that.  Out of the hardship and unpleasantness, he formed ideas which became the focal theme to his literary works.

Wright was born in 1908, on the Rucker plantation in Adams County, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez. Wright’s family moved to Memphis, TN; his father Nathaniel was a sharecropper and abandoned his family.  His mother Ella Wright, a schoolteacher, had to support herself and her children, forced to work as a cook.    

Wright wrote his first story at the age of fifteen, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acres;” a local black newspaper Southern Register published it.  He moved to Chicago in 1927.  Interested in the literary contacts he made at the John Reed Club, he formally joined the Communist party in 1933.  Wright moved to New York in 1937, and he forged new connections with Communist Party members there after getting established.  Wright gained national attention for the collection of four short stories titled Uncle Tom’s Children (1938).  He based some stories on lynching in the Deep South.  In 1939, he married Dhima Rose Meadman, a modern-dance teacher of Russian Jewish ancestry, but shortly thereafter they separated.

Wright had been criticized for his works’ concentration on violence.  There was complaint about Native Son because he portrayed black man in ways that seemed to confirm whites’ worst fear.  Native Son opened on Broadway, with Orson Welles as director, to generally favorable reviews in March 1941. That same year (1941) he married Ellen Poplar, a Polish Jewish woman who was a Communist Party organizer in Brooklyn, NY; they had two daughters.  In 1946 Wright was invited to France. After he returned to the United States he decided he could no longer tolerate the racism he experienced even in New York City. Married to a white woman and living in the North, he still was not able to buy an apartment as a black man; furthermore, he hated the stares he and his family received on the streets.  He wrote his autobiographical Black Boy (1945), which described his early life and move to Chicago, his differences with his Seventh-day Adventist family, and his troubles with white employers and social isolation. 

Reading the Preface of Brignano’s book, Richard Wright-An Introduction to the Man and his Works, he described Wrights life as “a search to discover whether black man could live with dignity and without fear in a world dominated by white men.”

Wright is well-known for Black Boy which remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and Southern in America.  From this book, I referenced a quote from Chapter 5, Black boy and asked Sandrine Dupiton, Founder, Change X: Journalism & Leadership Institute, if she felt this would have any meaning to people today.

“Having been thrust out of the world because of my race, I had accepted my destiny by not being curious about what shaped it.”


Change X

Sandrine Dupiton, Founder: Change X

Wright’s quote although disparaging is the true consequence and descriptor of much of the experience of Black people in America and other marginalized group: the abandonment of truth of one’s own humanity for the acceptance of the pervasive un-truths of the dominant society. Wright speaks of the blind conformity and acceptance of one’s role in society as lowly, or ignorant, or base, or undeserving of respect, or dignity. What is latent in the quote is the suggestion of being powerless and the feeling of being victimized in a world that is not your own, even though you’re obvious human-ness would seem to prove otherwise. The dilemma of seeing oneself as equally human and being sent the message that one is in fact, not, does damage. Even in the desire to arm oneself with truth to combat the negative messages, soon, fighting seems futile and the messages, images, and labels become one’s own and they then repeat these false truths first in thought, then in feelings and finally in action only to feed directly into the ideology of the cruel need to thrust one out of the world because of one’s race. What shapes one’s destiny is the pursuit of being true to oneself and in a place where a young black boy must peel through enormous layers to get there, along the way he chooses to leave the layers in place and follow the path that has been predetermined –becoming a victim of a psychologically self-imposed imprisonment.


I also asked a student at Nassau Community College, Jeanny Belfort, what she felt Wright was trying to convey in black Boy, Chapter 2, “When you get through, kiss back there.”  She struggled with trying to understand what Wright meant by this quote, almost interpreting it as if it were a poem.  She said “It is obvious he is referring to the subject of race as a black man.  He dealt with atrocity focused on race.  I feel that he was saying he never forgot to acknowledge his past and found a way to overcome it.”

Jeanny made a good point because today in our society there is still an issue about race.  Recently CNN presented a documentary just forty years after the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.  It takes a look at the stated of black America today—the pride, success, pain and struggle.  This documentary talks about what is reality for so many African Americans as did Wright in his time. 

The last work Wright submitted for publication during his lifetime, The Long Dream, a novel, was released in 1958. In this novel he portrays his strongest black father, and treats the black middle class in the setting of Clintonville, Mississippi.  During his last year and a half, Wright suffered from amoebic dysentery acquired during his travels to Africa or Asia, and he died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while recuperating at the Clinique Eugène Gibez in Paris. There were recurrent rumors that Wright was murdered, but this has not been substantiated.

Although gone for quit some time know Wright’s work will always be read.  He is a part of classic literature today.




Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 1938)

Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940)

The Outsider (New York: Harper, 1953)

Savage Holiday (New York: Avon, 1954)

The Long Dream (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958)

Eight Men (Cleveland and New York: World, 1961)


Black Boy (New York: Harper, 1945)

Black Power (New York: Harper, 1954)

The Color Curtain (Cleveland and New York: World, 1956)

Pagan Spain (New York: Harper, 1957)




Brignano, Russell Carl, Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, c.1970.







Martine E. Antoine


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