Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a farm in Mississippi. He was the first of two sons born to Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher. When Wright was a small child, his father abandoned the family to live with another woman. Wright’s mother subsequently became chronically ill, and the family was forced to live with various relatives. During one particularly tumultuous period, Wright and his brother spent a month in an orphanage. The family eventually settled with Wright’s grandmother. Though Wright attended a Seventh-Day Adventist school where his aunt taught, he rebelled against religious discipline, much like the character of Bigger Thomas in Native Son.
The illnesses suffered by Wright’s mother drained the family financially, forcing Wright to work a number of jobs during his childhood and adolescence. Despite sporadic schooling, he became an avid reader and graduated as valedictorian of his junior high school. Financial troubles worsened, however, and Wright was forced to drop out of high school after only a few weeks to find work. Shortly before the beginning of the Great Depression, the family moved to Chicago, where Wright devoted himself seriously to writing.
In 1934, Wright became a member of the Communist Party and began publishing articles and poetry in numerous left-wing publications. Still his family’s sole financial support, Wright took a job with the Federal Writers’ Project helping research the history of blacks in Chicago. In 1937, he moved to New York, where he was Harlem editor for the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. Around this time, he wrote and published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories that addresses the social realities faced by American black men. The novel—like its namesake, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—was banned or censored in parts of the United States.
However, it was Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, that stirred up real controversy by shocking the sensibilities of both black and white America. The reaction to Uncle Tom’s Children had disappointed Wright—though he had worked hard to describe racism as he saw it, he still felt he had written a novel “which even bankers’ daughters could read and feel good about.” With his next work, Native Son, he was determined to make his readers feel the reality of race relations by writing something “so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” The protagonist of the novel, Bigger Thomas, hails from the lowest rung of society, and Wright does not infuse him with any of the romantic aspects or traits common to literary heroes. Rather, given the social conditions in which he must live, Bigger is what one might expect him to be—sullen, frightened, violent, hateful, and resentful.
In his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Bigger is a fusion of men he had himself known while growing up in the South. Confronted by racism and oppression and left with very few options in their lives, these men displayed increasingly antisocial and violent behavior, and were, in effect, disasters waiting to happen. In Chicago, removed from the terrible oppression of the South, Wright discovered that Bigger was not exclusively a black phenomenon. Wright saw, just as Bigger does in Native Son that millions of whites suffered as well, and he believed that the direct cause of this suffering was the structure of American society itself. Native Son thus represents Wright’s urgent warning that if American social and economic realities did not change, the oppressed masses would soon rise up in fury against those in power.
Disenchanted over the Communist Party’s attempts to control the content of his writing, Wright quietly split with the Party in 1942. He continued to be active in left-wing politics, however, and was the subject of intense FBI scrutiny throughout his life. In the late 1940s, Wright moved to Paris with his wife and daughter. He became deeply interested in the philosophical movement of existentialism, often socializing with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of the movement’s leading figures.
Though Wright continued writing, his career never again reached the heights it attained when Native Son and Black Boy—his popular autobiographical novel—were published in the early and mid-1940s. Wright died of a heart attack in 1960. Today he is honored as one of the finest writers in African-American literature, a tremendous influence on such eminent contemporaries and followers as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, among many others.