ANY DISCUSSION OF WHITE America's great writers is likely to produce names such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and William Faulkner. When it comes to great African-American writers, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker are likely to be at the forefront of the discussions.
But there is one writer who's name is seldom mentioned with greatness who rightfully belongs among the giants of American literature. His name is Richard Wright. Wright was born in Mississippi in 1908, and his formative years were punctuated by racial violence and oppression. He died in France in 1960, a bitter expatriate who fell victim to McCarthyism and Cold War politics.
Wright's best known novel, "Native Son," was published on March 1, 1940, and sold more than 250,000 copies in six weeks. Today, it ranks as the most powerful social protest novel written by a black author, and one of the most analyzed works in American literature.
The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a young black man who is trapped in the poverty and despair of Chicago's slums. The novel is driven by powerful imagery, poignant symbolism, and a forceful condemnation of race and class in America.
In the opening scene, an ugly black rat slips into the apartment Bigger shares with his mother and his younger sister and brother. After a desperate battle, Bigger kills the rat with a skillet.
Later, Mr. Dalton, a rich white man, hires Bigger as his family's chauffeur. By a strange quirk of fate, Bigger inadvertently kills Mr. Dalton's daughter, Mary, and tries to cover up the crime by burning her body in a furnace. He also devises a plan to make her disappearance appear to be a kidnapping.
The plan unravels when Mary's charred remains are discovered. A desperate Bigger then rapes and kills a black woman who has knowledge of his crimes.
Bigger is eventually caught and his lawyer, Max, eloquently portrays him as a victim of poverty and racism. Bigger is convicted and sentenced to death.
"Native Son" blazed onto the literary landscape amid much critical acclaim. In the March 18, 1940, edition of The New Republic, Malcolm Cowley wrote:
"'Native Son' is the most impressive American novel I have read since 'The Grapes of Wrath.' In some ways the two books resemble each other: both deal with the dispossessed and both grew out of the radical movement of the 1930s. There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between the motives of the two authors. Steinbeck, more privileged than the characters in the novel, wrote out of deep pity for them, and the fault he had to avoid was sentimentality.
"Richard Wright, a Negro, was moved by wrongs he had suffered in his own person, and what he had to fear was a blind anger that might destroy the pity in him, making him hate any character whose skin was whiter than his own. His first book, 'Uncle Tom's Children,' had not completely avoided that fault."
'Black Boy' autobiography
Though "Native Son" is Wright's best known novel, many critics consider his autobiography, "Black Boy," to be his most important work. It is Wright's account of growing up in the South, where he was under tremendous pressure to accept racial oppression.
In a review of "Black boy" that ran in Esquire in 1945, the year the book was published, Sinclair Lewis wrote:
"Now this is the story of a colored boy who, just yesterday, found in his native community not merely that he was penalized for having the same qualities that in a white boy would have warmed his neighbors to universal praise -- the qualities of courage, energy, curiosity, refusal to be subservient, the impulse to record life in words -- but that he was in danger of disapproval, then of beatings, then of being killed, for these qualities for being 'uppity.'"
Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez. His father was a sharecropper, and his mother a schoolteacher. In 1914, the family moved to Memphis, Tenn., where Wright's mother worked as a cook for a white family and his father ran off with another woman. A short time later, Wright's mother contracted an illness that eventually made her an invalid.
Books were barred
Wright's maternal grandparents, strict Seventh Day Adventists with whom he lived for a time in Mississippi, barred books from the house and considered fiction to be the work of the devil.
In 1925, after the brother of a high school friend was killed in racial violence, Wright left Mississippi and went back to Memphis, where he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy. While living in Memphis, he was drawn to the writings naturalists such as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and Feodor Dostoevski.
He moved to Chicago in December 1927 and eventually landed a job as a postal clerk. In his spare time, he read Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche and others.
By the time Wright moved to Chicago, his world had been shaped by three forces: racial oppression in the South, the black migration northward and the Depression, which left many blacks trapped in poverty-ridden Northern ghettos.
Considering Wright's background, it's easy to see why he was drawn to communism with its promise of a classless society and the eradication of racism. He joined the Communist Party in 1933 and became a member of the John Reed Club, a communist writers' group.
Moved to Harlem
In 1937, he moved to Harlem and became editor of the Communist Party's newspaper, The Daily Worker. The next year, he won critical acclaim when "Uncle Tom's Children," a collection of his short stories, was published. In 1939, Wright received a Guggenheim Fellowship to devote full time to completing "Native Son."
Wright was not simply trying to titillate the readers of "Native Son" with graphic scenes of violence, the muted sexual overtones surrounding Mary's death and the use of Marxist dogma to explain Bigger's actions. His message was blunt and clear: This nation must undergo a radical change or face the prospect of even more Biggers arising.
The critic, Irving Howe, is probably correct when he suggests that "the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever."
Wright's communist comrades were displeased with their portrayal in "Native Son." Wright painted them as patronizing phonies.
For example, Mary Dalton claimed to be a communist although she enjoyed all the trappings of wealth. In one scene, Bigger became uncomfortable when her boyfriend, Jan, a communist organizer, insisted that Bigger choose a soul food restaurant where they could dine on fried chicken in a black neighborhood. Then Jan got behind the wheel and chauffeured Bigger and Mary. As Mary rides through the South Side, where her father's real estate company operates, she spoke of the neighborhood in the same breath with her trips abroad:
"'You know Bigger, I've long wanted to go into those houses,' she said, pointing to the tall, dark apartment buildings looming to either side of them, 'and just see how your people live. You know what I mean? I've been to England, France and Mexico, but I don't know how people live 10 blocks from me. We know so little about each other. I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They're human ... There are 12 million of them. ... They live in our country. ... In the same city with us ...,' her voice trailed off wistfully."
Break with communism
In 1944, Wright publicly broke with the Communist Party. And although "Native Son" brought him fame and fortune, he could not escape racism in New York. Three years earlier he had married Ellen Poplar, a white communist. Wright, his wife, and their two daughters often faced housing discrimination in New York City. Feeling increasingly angry and alienated, Wright and his family moved in 1947 to Paris, a city that had opened its arms earlier to another black expatriate, Josephine Baker.
'The Long Dream'
After Wright left the United States, some of his critics complained that his creativity suffered because he was too far removed from his homeland. But his 1958 novel, "The Long Dream," provides one of the most poignant depictions of Jim Crow Mississippi that can be found in print, even to this day.
It is Wright's nonfiction that truly withstands the test of time. "Black Power," written in 1954, years before the term came to symbolize a movement in the United States, is a detailed picture of the West African nation of Ghana on the eve of independence.
In 1956, "The Color Curtain" was published. It's a powerful account of one of the most significant gatherings of this century: the meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, of "non-aligned" nations -- mostly from Africa and Asia -- which laid the foundation for the anti-colonial upsurge that was to change the world in subsequent years. The next year, Wright continued to voice his concern about white supremacy with a collection of essays titled "White Man, Listen!"
Although Wright had broken with communism, he was still branded a subversive by the U.S. government. At one point, the U.S. Senate declared "Black Boy" to be obscene. While Wright lived abroad, it appears that he was placed under surveillance, and hounded by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Death in Paris
Wright died of an apparent heart attack in 1960 in Paris. Today, nearly 40 years after his death, his words continue to resonate. In 1963, his widow arranged for the publication of his novel, "Lawd Today," which was a day in the life of Jake Jackson, a middle-class black man who lived on Chicago's South Side.
Wright completed the novel in 1937, after working on it for five years. It was Wright's first novel, and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers who objected to its style, which was heavily influenced by James Joyce, John Dos Passos and others.
While Joyce's "Ulysses" is widely considered to be a masterpiece, most readers find it difficult -- if not impossible -- to comprehend. Perhaps publishers in the 1930s were not ready for a black man's effort to write with the profundity of Joyce.
A look back at Wright's life and literary career leaves us with several questions our society should ponder:
* How many brilliant people are toiling in menial jobs because they've never gotten a chance to display their talents?
* How many brilliant manuscripts are rotting in basements because publishers have not recognized their worth?
* And how many more Bigger Thomases will arise before we can say that Richard Wright's message has not been ignored?
Highlights of Wright's life
1908 -- Born Richard Nathaniel Wright on Sept. 4 on a plantation near Natchez, Miss., to Nathan Wright, a sharecropper, and Ella Wright, a schoolteacher. He grows up in one of the most poverty-stricken and rigidly segregated parts of the South.
1914-1915 -- In search of better jobs, the family moves to Memphis, Tenn. The Wrights are left destitute when Nathan deserts Ella for another woman. In 1915, Ella contracts an illness that leaves her an invalid.
1916-1918 -- Along with his mother and brother, he moves to Jackson, Miss., to live with his maternal grandmother and then to Elaine, Ark., where they live with an aunt and uncle. They are forced to leave Arkansas when his uncle is slain by whites who threaten to kill the entire family.
1918-1925 -- A period of serious and widespread racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Increasingly aware of Southern racism and violence, he leaves Mississippi. Arrives in Memphis in November 1925.
1926 -- Begins to read widely and is drawn to H.L. Mencken's ideas criticizing American society. Favors such American naturalists as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and is influenced by such European realists as Henrik Ibsen and Emile Zola.
1927 -- Wright moves to Chicago and is joined shortly thereafter by his mother and brother. Works as a postal clerk, a job that enables him to work nights and spend his days reading and writing.
1929 -- Soon after the stock market crash, he loses his postal clerk job, forcing him to work low-paying jobs to support the family.
1932-1934 -- Becomes interested in Marxism. Joins Communist Party in 1933.
1935-1936 -- Begins work on first novel, "Lawd Today," in 1935 and publishes "Big Boy Leaves Home" in 1936. By the end of 1936, he has started writing "Native Son."
1937 -- Moves to Harlem and becomes editor of the Communist Party's newspaper, The Daily Worker.
1938 -- Publishes "Uncle Tom's Children," a collection of short stories. Wins critical acclaim.
1939 -- Wright receives a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling him to work full-time on "Native Son."
1940 -- Publishes "Native Son," selling 250,000 copies in six weeks. Communist comrades dislike their portrayal as patronizing in "Native Son."
1941 -- Marries Ellen Poplar, a white communist. He and his wife and two daughters face housing discrimination in New York City.
1942 -- Officially breaks with the Communist Party.
1944 -- His public disavowal of communism, "I Tried to Be a Communist," is published in Atlantic Monthly.
1945 -- "Black Boy," a shortened version of his autobiography, is published.
1947 -- Feeling alienated and angry, Wright and his family move to Paris.
1954-1958 -- Has several works published, including "The Long Dream," which is viewed as one of the most poignant depictions of Jim Crow Mississippi.
1960 -- Wright dies of a heart attack while being treated for an unrelated illness at a Paris hospital.
Source: "Richard Wright, Critical Perspectives Past and Present," Amistad Press Inc.
Gerald Horne, professor and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s."
Pub Date: 02/28/99