Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen

Published on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

Jennifer Jensen Wallach opens her new biography of Richard Wright by commenting on the lifelong racial struggles endured by her subject: “He would never be seen merely as a writer or an intellectual, but as a black writer, a black intellectual. With that label came certain responsibilities, which he met to the best of his ability. Yet he often longed for the anonymity that came with white privilege, the carefree ability to speak only for oneself.”

Living with anonymity can be a luxury that is often taken for granted, especially when one becomes a writer and public figure of Wright’s magnitude. Wright’s combat with racial discrimination spilled into his fictional characters, the most famous of which is the tragic Bigger Thomas, the young African American whose doom is sealed by being the product of a violently segregated environment. Philosopher Franz Fanon’s 1952 essay “The Fact of Blackness” analyzes Wright’s desperate search for racial anonymity and cites Bigger Thomas, the murderous protagonist of Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), as a rare case of a black subject who finally acts: “To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” As Wallach’s biography chronicles, Richard Wright, much like Bigger Thomas, was exactly the figure that the world had anticipated.

From his early rejection of institutionalized religion to his heavy involvement with the Communist Party throughout the 1930s, Wright often wrote about controversial ideas that had been informed by, though not necessary associated with, his race. Beginning with his earliest writings in the late 1920s for the periodical The New Masses, Wright established himself as an author unafraid to stretch boundaries and assert his viewpoints. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship for his first collection of short stories titled Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, Wright began writing what would become his most enduring work, Native Son. The canonical African-American novel has become a standard in high school and college literature courses for its sharp social commentary and morally ambiguous protagonist. Wright shocked audiences with an African-American character who was simultaneously endearing and, as many of his contemporary black literary critics pointed out, an embodiment of a dangerous stereotype. Regardless, Wright never apologized for Bigger’s actions and further demonstrated his allegiance to the character by formally embodying Bigger in 1951 when he took the starring role in the first film adaptation of Native Son.

Shortly after the city’s liberation in 1944, Wright moved to Paris to continue his career, making friends with influential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Wallach’s biography describes the various intellectual influences that enriched Wright’s writing during this time, as his style moved toward a more philosophical direction with books like The Outsider (1953) and Savage Holiday (1954). As the years continued, Wright led an increasingly isolated and radical existence until his mysterious death in 1960, perhaps in an attempt to inhabit the racial anonymity for which he had so desperately sought.

Inspiring subsequent African-American authors such as James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, Wright’s quest for freedom, equality, and literary excellence are all documented and realized in Wallach’s biography. Wallach weaves his radical political and philosophical beliefs together with the tumultuous events of his personal life to demonstrate how Wright’s life and works of fiction are best understood only when experienced alongside one another.