Richard Wright, the American author of the novels Native Son and Black Boy, was born on a plantation in Roxie, near Natchez, Mississippi in 1908. He died of a heart attack in Paris, in 1960, aged 52. For a while, especially in the early 1940s, he was an enormously prominent and important leftwing author.
Native Son was a ground-breaking book with a young Black hoodlum, Bigger Thomas, as its anti-hero. It was criticised by some activists at the time for not presenting a positive view of Black people. Indeed, Native Son is a gruelling read. Wright wanted to present Thomas, who murders two women, as a young man almost entirely imprisoned by his brutal environment.
Black Boy, however, is also interesting and easier, detailing Wright′s own personal battle against hunger, backwardness and Jim Crow terror in towns along the Mississippi. Black Boy is an exploration of the limits placed on African-Americans by the extraordinarily vicious regime in the American South in the first decades of the twentieth century. Black Boy must have been shocking to whites, revealing the level of hatred many Black people felt for them; the book was banned in Mississippi.
Wright’s grandparents were all born into slavery and were freed during the US Civil War. Both his grandfathers ended the war fighting for the Union, against the Confederacy. Wright’s father, Nathan, abandoned the family, leaving them in destitution, when Richard was six years old. Wright only met his father again when he travelled back through Natchez on his way from Mexico to New York in June 1940. Nathan Wright and his brothers were sharecroppers in the heart of the segregated lynch-law Southern states. Nathan Wright, barely literate, had attempted to move to the city, but had failed and reverted to what he knew, scratching a living from the land.
The condition of Black people in Natchez dismayed Richard Wright – they were among the most downtrodden, poorest, badly educated and unhealthiest people in the US. In 1910, two years after Wright’s birth, the US census revealed that there were 9,828,000 Black people in the US, 10.7% of the total population. 89% lived in the South and only 25% lived in cities. The average life expectancy of a Black man was 34 years, and women 38 years. In most of the Southern states spending on white school students was at least twice that spent on Black children.
Richard Wright had lived in the South until 1927 when he escaped to the Black area of Chicago, the South Side. Wright’s education in segregated schools had been interrupted, and then curtailed at the age of 16; he had had only four years full of schooling. His home life had been dominated by extreme poverty and his puritanically religious and narrow-minded extended family. Wright described the move from the rural South to Chicago as the most difficult step of his life; the buildings were towering and the traffic and noise were alarming.
He and his disabled mother had joined the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans who moved from the South to the northern industrial towns between the First and Second World Wars. Although some overt signs of discrimination had gone – there were no signs in Chicago telling “White” and “Coloured” rail travellers which ticket windows and carriages to use – there were still staggering degrees of discrimination. Communist Party writers In Chicago Richard Wright found his way to the John Reed Club, a Communist Party front for writers and artists where for the first time he met white people who were anti-racist. Manipulated by the Communists (by then Stalinists), he became the Club′s leader.
Richard Wright′s relationship with the Communist Party is — apparently — described in a twenty page essay which is contained in the book The God That Failed (1950). This essay was, in fact, originally part of Black Boy, edited out before publication. This text suggests Wright joined the American CP in 1933 and left in 1936. In fact Wright only finally broke with the CP in 1942, and publicly left later than that.
A measure of the degeneracy of the Communist Party′s politics is described by Wright in The God That Failed: a man called Young had joined the John Reed Club and had quickly begun to help run it. Young then launched a vitriolic campaign against another member, badly disrupting the Club. It turned out that Young had escaped from a mental hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Wright commented, ″What kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step in and help run it? Were we all so mad that we could not detect a madman when we saw one?″
Wright also reports on the political trial of an insufficiently-loyal Black activist – a mini-Show Trial — at a CP meeting; demagogic accusations of Trotskyism were levelled against him when he became argumentative or oppositional. Wright says he had not read Trotsky, and his writing is notable for what he doesn′t discuss — the Nazis coming to power in Germany, the mass strikes in the US, the terror in the USSR or the Spanish civil war. He seems to have had little interest in these issues. Wright’s overwhelming concern was US racism.
In 1937, Wright was the Harlem correspondent for the Party′s Daily Worker newspaper, producing scores of articles about the area where the CP had nearly 1,000 members. At this time Wright became good friends with the African-American writer Ralph Ellison, later the author of the very important novel Invisible Man (1952). Ellison was probably, at this time, also a CP member, like very many of Wright′s friends and acquaintances.
Following the third of Stalin’s Moscow Show Trials in March 1938, after which the 21 defendants, including Christian Rakovsky and Nikolai Bukarin — all accused of fantastical nonsense — were executed, one hundred US authors, including Wright, published an Open Letter defending Stalin and the Show Trial. In August 1939 the USSR signed a pact with Nazi Germany. Stalin and Hitler then overran and split Poland. Later, in November, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The events caused mass resignations from the Communist Party. Wright, however, denounced those who were “jumping off the Communist train”. In an interview in the Sunday Worker in February 1940 Wright described the Nazi-Soviet pact as “a great step toward peace.”
Richard Wright’s breakthrough took place in early 1940 when Native Son was promoted by the Book-of-the-Month Club, a vast mail order business based in New York. 170,000 copies were printed and within a few days the book was reprinted. After three weeks 215,000 copies had been sold and the novel was still selling at the rate of 2000 copies per day. Wright became the first best-selling Black American writer.
Wright broke from the Communist Party because of the betrayal of Black Americans when the Stalinists turned to support the US war after Hitler′s attack on the USSR in June 1941 and the Nazi declaration of war against the US in December 1941.
The Communist Party dropped its agitation against racism and segregation, and Wright did not want to fight “for democracy” as part of a Jim Crow, segregated army. At various times Wright received notices calling him up to the army. He worked hard to prevent himself being drafted, even calling on support from the President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. At one point, in 1944, he wrote to the Brooklyn Draft Board, “The segregated units and quarters for Negroes in the armed forces violate my instincts and feelings to the degree that I feel that to serve in our armed forces is to fight in defence of such a system and to give my approval to it. And it is to make known my emphatic rejection to that that I make this statement.”
The FBI, who had been watching Wright, noted that he had broken with the Communist Party because it was insufficiently militant on the question of Black rights. He remained on their Security Index. Wright broke openly with the Party in 1945 with a two part article; I Tried to be a Communist, printed in Atlantic Monthly.
Black Boy was originally called American Hunger and was written in seven months, being completed at the end of 1943. The first 300 pages, called Southern Night, became Black Boy; the final 150 pages, titled The Horror and the Glory, dealt with the racism Wright experienced in Chicago, and included a denunciation of the Communist Party. Wright agreed to remove the final long section on Chicago in order to be accepted again by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
According to Wright’s biographer, Hazel Rowley, the original ending to Southern Night was: “This was the terror from which I fled,” and the editors exerted pressure on Wright to acknowledge the positive actions of white liberals and to end on a more positive note. Wright did all he could to resist this pressure, writing, “I do not think the Negroes will be treated any better in this country until whites themselves realise that there is something dead wrong with the American way of life.”
Black Boy became a Book-of-the-Month Club best seller in March 1945. It sold twice as well as Native Son and by the end of the year half a million copies were sold. The book was published in Europe and won awards in France where Wright, and his white, Jewish, ex-Communist wife Ellen and first child moved in 1946. From 1946 Wright would spend most of his time in France. He lived there so that the continual grind of US racism did not dominate his life.
Black Boy made so much money that Wright and his family were able to live on the proceeds for years. He took $6,000 per year from the Black Boy account and still had $25,000 left in 1951. Wright never again produced a book as good as either Native Son or Black Boy, but those two novels helped to break Black writers into the US mainstream. As he says in Black Boy (about the US critic H L Mencken whom he first read, secretly, in Mississippi), “This man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as weapons… maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon.”
And that is what Richard Wright did. He used words as weapons against white US racism.