Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a farm near the river town of Natchez, Mississippi. He was the first of two sons born to Nathan Wright, an illiterate tenant farmer, and Ella Wilson Wright, a teacher. When Richard was about five years old, his father abandoned the family to live with another woman. Trying to support herself and her two children—all the while trying to keep the rambunctious Richard under control—proved too stressful for Ella’s delicate constitution, and she suffered a stroke that left her physically disabled for the rest of her life. His mother’s health troubles shaped Wright’s life in two significant ways. First, they meant that he had to work when his mother could not (which was often); this situation made his schooling intermittent at best. Second, it meant that Wright’s living arrangements would change whenever his mother became too ill to care for her children. As such shifts occurred often, Wright had little opportunity to form coherent, nurturing, and meaningful relationships with family members or friends.
Despite his irregular schooling, Wright became an avid reader. When he was sixteen, he published a short story in a local black newspaper and began to harbor ambitions to write professionally. He faced considerable odds in this quest: his intensely religious household discouraged “idle” thoughts and creativity, while the dehumanizing Jim Crow South pronounced Wright and all black men unfit for anything but the lowliest work. When he moved himself and his family to Chicago in the late 1920s, circumstances were hardly more encouraging. As the Great Depression enveloped the country, Wright had to work a wide variety of stultifying and exhausting jobs to support his family. Nevertheless, he began to write seriously in private.
Wright entered the world of letters in 1933, when he began publishing poetry in various leftist and revolutionary magazines. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, writing for their publications and meeting many other disaffected writers, artists, and intellectuals who were also Party members. In 1937, Wright moved to New York and became Harlem editor of The Daily Worker, a Communist publication. The next eight years were the most triumphant of his life, as he published important essays such as “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” acclaimed stories like “Fire and Cloud,” and two very successful novels: Native Son (1940) and the autobiographical Black Boy (1945).
This flurry of creative productivity did not overshadow Wright’s political concerns, as he remained socially engaged with activist intellectuals for the rest of his life. He left the Communist Party in 1942 out of disapproval at what he considered the Party’s soft stance on wartime racial discrimination. Wright left the United States in 1947, partly in protest against the deep flaws he discerned in American society. Settling with his wife and daughter in Paris, he became interested in existentialism, the philosophical movement that attempted to understand individual existence in the context of an unfathomable universe.
In Paris, Wright often socialized with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two influential thinkers and writers of the existentialist movement. He then began corresponding with Frantz Fanon, the West Indian social philosopher, in the 1950s. Wright published little of lasting value during these years, and when he died of a heart attack in 1960, it was clear that his writing career had peaked with Native Son and Black Boy. Nevertheless, the sheer power of those novels, and the thundering creativity of the years during which he produced them, ensured that Wright would be remembered not merely as an aspiring intellectual but as a powerful American artist.
Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, portrays his boyhood in the vicious Jim Crow South and his struggles with the Communist Party in Chicago. As such, a sensitive reading of this work depends on an understanding of its social and historical contexts. One of the primary contexts is the body of laws referred to as the “Jim Crow laws” after a crudely stereotypical character in white theater designed to degrade blacks for white entertainment.
Taking their cue from the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Jim Crow laws mandated segregation of black from white not only in physical spaces such as restaurants, trains, movie theaters, and hospitals, but also in social arenas such as marriage. These laws effectively created two separate societies with highly unequal distributions of wealth. Primarily agricultural black populations were cast into extreme poverty and despair, enabling whites to take over the blacks’ land and further exploit them as laborers on white-owned farms. As Wright learned when he traveled to New York, these laws were not exclusive to the South. However, they were most devastating in the South, likely because the South’s history of slavery made it especially difficult for whites to accept black emancipation.
Likewise, it is difficult to fully understand Black Boy without knowledge of American Communism in the 1930s and 1940s. These years saw the collapse of the stock market, industry stagnation, massive unemployment, and even famine in some parts of the United States. Many American intellectuals were disturbed by the capitalist mode of production, which, in their opinion, brought about these dreadful problems and then did very little to alleviate them. Communists believed in the dignity and agency of precisely those people who seemed to suffer the most. They claimed their political philosophy was based on a scientific model, and they advanced a theory of progress that emphasized not only equality, justice, and solidarity, but also conformity.
As many of these tenets of Communism appealed to human beings’ noblest sentiments, the American Communist Party attracted many idealists, including Wright. As a black man, Wright was particularly interested in the convergence of confronting racism with Communism. Eventually, the American Communist Party saw the same internal bickering and division that plagued other American political organizations. The Party’s increasingly authoritarian stance profoundly disappointed sensitive thinkers like Wright, who had joined the Party with firm hopes for a brighter future.
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