Black Boy: Biography: Richard Wright

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Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Roxie, Mississippi, in 1908. He grew up surrounded by the racial tension that plagued the South during this time. He was drinking at the local saloon at the age of six, and before learning to read had learned to curse, which made life even more difficult in his extremely religious extended family. 

After his sharecropper father left his mother for another woman, Richard and his brother lived with their mother as long as her health permitted her to feed them. They moved frequently, and the boys were placed in an orphanage briefly. Richard rebelled against the injustices of life there, preferring to be with his mother and brother in freedom.

With poverty, beatings and hunger omnipresent in his young life, Wright learned about human suffering at an age when his peers still lived relatively sheltered lives. After his mother suffered a paralyzing stroke, he and his brother were sent to live with different aunts and uncles. Unhappy with life at his uncle’s, Wright returned to Jackson despite his misery at being beaten and preached to both at home and in church by his Seventh Day Adventist grandmother. He published his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre” in the black newspaper the Southern Register in 1924.  Although his family and community discouraged him from pursuing writing, he continued to derive enormous pleasure from both writing and reading, discovering such authors as H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis. Wright found odd jobs to pay for food and eventually saved and stole enough to leave the “deep South” for Memphis, where he frequented the local library with a sympathetic white Catholic man’s membership card.

Wright was able to reunite with his mother and brother as well as his Aunt Maggie in Chicago in 1927. In April of 1931 he published his first major story, “Superstition,” in Abbot’s Monthly. He became involved in the Communist Party, and remained active after moving to New York in 1937, where he was Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and supported a literary magazine called New Challenge. After four of his stories were published as Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and completed his first novel, Native Son (1940). After a brief marriage to a white dancer in 1939, in 1941 he married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist Party. They had two daughters, Julia in 1942 and, after moving to Paris in 1946, Rachel in 1949.  Before leaving the United States, Richard Wright published his first autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He entered an Existentialist phase and befriended the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre among other contemporary Existentialists, and in 1953 wrote The Outsiders. He became ill and suffered financial hardships, but continued writing non-fiction stories, novels and poetry, including thousands of Haiku poems. After his death from a heart attack in 1960, a second autobiography, American Hunger, was published in 1977, detailing the story of  his membership and disillusionment with the Communist Party. 

 Richard Wright’s social criticism and writing talent earned him recognition as among the most important American writers of the 20th century, and he is widely recognized as a key figure in breaking for white readers stereotypes of the black man as subservient and inferior.

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