Richard Wright, bom in Roxie, Mis¬ sissippi, was raised in a family that suf¬ fered constantly from poverty. When Wright’s father deserted the family in 1913, Richard’s mother moved them to Tennessee and then Arkansas, until she became ill, and put him and his little brother into an orphanage.
Rescued by his maternal grandparents, who brought the boys to Jackson, Mississippi, Richard began to attend school regular¬ ly for the first time. His mother had taught him to read and he had decided early that he would be a writer, but the racism in Mississippi was so extreme that no opportunity would have present¬ ed itself.
In desperation, Wright pulled off a small robbery and used the money from the sale of a gun and some fruit preserves to buy a ticket to Memphis.In 1927, he moved to Chicago and started writing for Left Front and New Masses. When the Depression stmck, Wright was chosen for government writing projects that kept him employed and further increased his skill.
In 1935, Wright chose the Joe Louis/Max Baer fight as the subject of a short piece defining “the heart of the Negro:” “Here’s the fluid some¬ thing that’s like iron. Here’s the real dyna¬ mite that Joe Louis uncovered.”
In 1937, Wright moved to New York, and in 1938 his first collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, appeared. Built on his experiences with intense and violent racism in the Deep South, these stories defined the strength of the African-Ameri¬ can character trying to succeed against all odds.
Well received, Uncle Tom’s Children was followed by Wright’s first — and most famous — novel, Native Son, which fol¬ lows the character Bigger Thomas through the trials of being black in the North, held down in a “cold and distant world; a world of white secrets carefully guarded.”
Twelve Million Black Voices, Wright’s folk history, was published, quickly fol¬ lowed by Black Boy in 1945, which told Wright’s own story of growing up in the rur¬ al South. Though there are questions as to its authenticity as an autobiography, the funda¬ mental truth of Black Boy gained it a fol¬ lowing as respectful as that of Native Son.
Wright left America for Paris in 1946, where he continued to write amongst a group of other intellectuals, artists and writ¬ ers including Gertrude Stein, Jean Paul- Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The Out¬ sider was published in 1953, Savage Holi¬ day in 1954, The Long Dream in 1959 and Eight Men in 1961.
After Wright’s death in Paris, James Baldwin (see no. 85) observed: “Wright’s unrelentingly bleak landscape was not mere¬ ly that of the Deep South, or of Chicago, but that of the world, of the human heart.”