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Richard Wright: hurling words into...

Richard Wright: hurling words into darkness

By: NK Wessman - June 13, 2023

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.

Richard Wright

Born on a plantation near Natchez, Richard Nathaniel Wright claimed heritage from slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War. One of Wright’s grandfathers served in the “U.S. Colored Troops” and the other was a US Navy recruit.

His father, born free, was a sharecropper. His mother, a schoolteacher. Nathan Wright left the family when his son was just five years old, leaving them poor and often hungry.

Even so, Richard Wright became one of Mississippi’s most famous native sons, described by an Australian-born panelist at the celebration in Harlem of his 100th birthday, “the best known Black writer in the world.”

He grew, discovering a passion for words during his teen years in Jackson, moved to Memphis, migrated to Chicago, and found a community of writers and his life’s path into publishing.

Those formative years of Wright’s passing from one temporary home to another, with various aunts and uncles or grandparents and for a short time in an orphanage, denied the youngster even the possibility of regular school attendance. But at age thirteen, living with his maternal grandmother in West Jackson, Wright could attend Jim Hill School.

A local Black newspaper published his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” when he was fifteen years old.

Class valedictorian of Smith Robertson Junior High School, the first Jackson public school for African American children, in 1923 and a graduate in 1925, he began studies at the new Lanier High School but had to drop out to earn money for his family. That ended any formal education but never stopped his self-studies.

When only seventeen, he left alone for Memphis, intending to send for his mother when he could support her. In an environment slightly better for Blacks than he had experienced in Mississippi and the Arkansas Delta, he worked and read books he borrowed from the library by posing as a white coworker’s friend assigned to pick up the books for him.

Joined in 1926 by his mother and younger brother, Wright again moved north in 1927—part of the Great Migration, they left for Chicago.

An unskilled laborer in the Great Depression, Wright discovered and worked with the Federal Writers’ Project and in 1938 published his first book, an anthology titled Uncle Tom’s Children.

By then he had moved to New York City. He joined the American Communist Party, while continuing to write for both commercial and literary publications. He found a semblance of financial stability, earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, and wrote Native Son, a 1940 novel the Book of the Month Club chose as its first book by an African American author.

Catapulted into the public spotlight, Wright stayed busy with, among other work, an adaptation of Native Son directed by Orson Welles on Broadway and with playing the role of protagonist Bigger Thomas in an Argentinian movie.

Bigger Thomas, described as “a Negro boy of twenty, a poolroom loafer, a bully, a liar and a petty thief,” lived what he deemed a doomed life in a rat-infested neighborhood.

In 1945, Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, revealed his personal account of disparities, derision, and death that he and other African Americans often experienced. From his birth in Roxie until his nineteenth year in Chicago, Wright witnessed suffering, discrimination, and violence. The book reveals that and his intellectual journey, setting the theme that would permeate much of his future work.

Wright intended a second volume follow-up, American Hunger, to continue the Black Boy story of his participation in the John Reed Clubs and Communist Party, which he left in 1942.

Published posthumously in 1977, that writing was restored to his two-volume intent when in 1991 the non-profit publisher Library of America regenerated the book to its original form.

After Wright moved to Paris in 1946, he became a permanent American expatriate. Although he toyed with the notion of relocating to London, he and his wife Ellen Poplar (née Poplowitz), remained in Paris. They had two daughters, Julia, born in 1942, and Rachel, born in 1949.

Hungry for knowledge from a young age, Wright became friends with many other writers in Paris and beyond. He traveled extensively, throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, drawing material from those journeys and writing several nonfiction works.

Among his most famous quotes, Wright said, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

Of Wright, University Press of Mississippi writes, “At the end of his life, the young man from Mississippi had become a well-traveled intellectual deeply interested in the social and political as well as literary and racial issues of the Old, the New, and the Third World.”

“Conversations with Richard Wright” collects some fifty interviews, many of which are little known in the United States because they appeared in non-English European periodicals and newspapers. This collection reveals a serious, often didactic Wright. Most of his interviewers were white men, and he was always trying to make them listen.

European issues also claimed his attention as he struggled to reconcile Marxism, Freudianism, and existentialism to the political realities from 1945 to his death in 1960.”

Novelist, playwright, memoirist, poet—Wright authored twelve fiction titles, ten nonfiction, six essays, and several collections. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960, at the age of 52.

About the Author(s)
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NK Wessman

NK Wessman authored Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero, the compelling story of first responders who stayed behind when the worst natural disaster in our history slammed the Gulf Coast. She co-wrote You Can Fix The Fat From Childhood—And Other Heart Risks, Too in collaboration with Dr. Gerald Berenson, founder and senior researcher of the Bogalusa Heart Study. Wessman also has worked as a journalist, public relations practitioner/consultant, and now as a book coach and editor.
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