I spent a good part of last summer with Richard Wright, the African-American author of the novel Native Son and the autobiography Black Boy. My extended visit with him happened because this fall Im teaching a "Major Authors" class focused on his work.
Wright died in 1960, at the age of 52. But he still lives through his written words, which leap with dramatic fire and prickly rage. Born into a family of sharecroppers near Natchez, Mississippi, Wrights early life went downhill from there. Humble is too mild a word for Wrights beginnings, but he rose to become one of Americas most important authors.
In his late teens, Wright, already bitten by the writing bug, fled north to Chicago. He joined the Communist Party and its writers organization, the John Reed Club, which gave him the education the state of Mississippi had denied him. Wrights first book, a story collection called Uncle Toms Children, appeared in 1938 and earned a favorable review from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Native Son, published in 1941, shocked readers with its unvarnished portrayal of black rage and alienation. But it was also a Book of the Month Club selection and made Wright a wealthy man.
Black Boy, published a few years later, was even more favorably received, but Wright felt dogged by racism, even in New York City. In the late 1940s, he moved to Paris, which he, and many other black artists and intellectuals, found to be free of color consciousness. Wright lived out his life there as an international celebrity, hobnobbing with existentialist philosophers and the early leaders of Africas anti-colonial revolutions.
Wright is commonly pictured as an icon of the black freedom struggle, and he was a political activist all his lifefirst as a communist, then as a nonaligned anti-imperialist. But he was, first and foremost, an artist whose only allegiance was to his own imagination. This was bound to cause trouble with the communists. When, in Uncle Toms Children, Wrights imagination delivered visions of black and poor white sharecroppers marching side by side, the Left loved him. Then, in Native Son, he imagined a young, black man who hates a young, white woman (a party sympathizer) for her condescension and kills her without remorse. The party wasnt so sure about that.
Ive used excerpts from Black Boy in my classes for years. A freshman composition class usually gets the famous section in which Wright borrows a white mans library card and forges a note in order to get books by H.L. Mencken. Wrights interest in Mencken was sparked by an editorial in the local paper damning the Baltimore critic for his essays on Southern culture. Wright ended up getting a collection of Menckens book reviews, which provided him with a reading list for his self-education. But Wright was mainly struck by the critics confident, combative style. Mencken, he said, was "using words as weapons," and Wright realized that he could do the same.
In a creative writing class, Ill often use the passage in which Wright, at the age of 13, discovers his vocation as a writer. Concerned by Richards lack of religious faith, his grandmother locked him in his room for an hour every day with orders to pray. Wright obeyed for several days until one day he received a vision not of Jesus but of an Indian girl, in a deep forest, wading into a quiet river. He felt compelled to write down the scene and show it to the girl next door. Hed found his religion.
Both of these narratives go over well with students at the historically black college where I teach. They see Wrights story as part of the story of struggle that has led them to a college classroom. But I also used Wrights tale of artistic self-discovery when I taught at an elite visual arts college. For most of those white, affluent, and bohemian students, segregation might as well have happened in ancient Egypt and poverty was something Bono kept going on about. But Wrights story still struck sparks. These aspiring artists identified with Wrights experience of connecting with the unconscious because something like that had happened to all of them.
Today, the Cold War that defined Wrights political life is gone, and Americas color line has grown fainter. But the image of a poor, black boy on his knees, discovering strange worlds within himself, remains. Thats what books are for.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.