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Richard Wright was born outside Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908, the son of an illiterate sharecropper. As a boy growing up in the segregated Deep South, Wright was abandoned by his father and forced to live in poverty. From a very early age, he found an escape from the hunger and violence of his everyday life in the written word. A voracious reader, Wright was a star student, graduating as valedictorian of Smith Robertson Junior High School in Jackson, Mississippi. It was during this time that Wright published "The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre", his first short story.

Reading expanded his intellect and made him aware of the injustices he experienced as a black boy living in the South. African-Americans at the time were migrating in huge numbers to Chicago with the promise of economic opportunity and a fairer society, and Wright joined the flow as soon as he saved enough money to make the trip. During the Depression, Wright joined the Communist Party, and became active in the progressive literary movement which was sweeping Chicago and the nation. As a member of the Federal Writers' Project, he wrote proletarian poetry, stories and articles for the Daily Worker while studying at the Chicago John Reed Club. Wright honed his skills until he felt confident enough to travel to New York, the literary capital, where he dedicated himself to his art.

While in New York, Wright's talents became widely recognized, and within a few years he was winning awards for his stories, and receiving excellent reviews from his critics. Wright withdrew from the Communist Party as he started to achieve popularity. He did not accept their attempt to use him as a voice for their leftist agenda. Instead, Wright felt he had his own unique narratives to express.

In 1940, Native Son was published and became an instant bestseller. In the words of critic Irving Howe, "The day Native Son appeared American culture was changed forever." An adaptation for the Broadway stage was produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman, and in 1951 a feature film of the novel was screened internationally.

During the war years, Wright lived in New York where he lectured and began work on his autobiography, Black Boy. Published in 1945, Black Boy : A Record of Childhood and Youth also became a best seller, and was accompanied by a major photo spread in Life magazine.

After the success of Black Boy, Wright felt "burnt out" with the New York scene, and decided to travel to London and Paris, where he was a guest of the French government. He found the intellectual and cultural climate in France amenable and within a year decided to expatriate his family to Paris. Living in the Quartier Latin, Wright was charmed by "the prevalence of literacy, the beautiful statues, the bookstores at every corner" and remarked that he had "not detected the least iota of racial tension against the Negroes." He contrasted the respect he was afforded by the French people with the situation in America, which was "not bad, but hopeless. The Negro eats, he has a roof over his head, he has a good time, but, beyond that, he is shut off. There is a ceiling on any aspiration whether it be in the field of education, jobs, or anything else."

Instantly, Wright was immersed in the intellectual cafe milieu of Paris. He befriended the French writers and philosophers of his day, such as Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and found himself at the center of an expatriate community of African-American writers which included Chester Himes and James Baldwin. It was at this time that life in the demimonde afforded him the opportunity to come in contact with the West Indian poet Aime Césaire and the Senegalese intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor. Together they founded the Negritude movement, which sought to re-appropriate the cultural agency of black Africans living under European colonial domination. Wright became absorbed in the revolutionary writings of Franz Fanon, as well as the phenomenological, existential thought of Husserl and Heidegger, and he began to view the problems of black people from a global perspective, likening the plight of African-Americans with that of the oppressed majority of the world's peoples.

Wright continued a very productive artistic and political life in Paris. He saw the completion of the movie adaptation of Native Son, wrote fiction which was influenced by the existentialist crisis with which he was engaged, contributed many essays on the status of race relations, and participated in international conferences on the third world. A bout of amebic dysentery brought about persistent health problems over the following months and in 1960, his life was cut short by a heart attack. Richard Wright was cremated along with a copy of Black Boy in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.


Richard Wright at his High School Graduation. [enlarge]

Wright after completing Native Son. [Enlarge]

Wright with good friend Simone de Beauvoir, Parisian intellectual. [Enlarge]


Chronology adapted from Robert J. Butler's The Critical Response to Richard Wright.

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