| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Richard Wright’s home state of Mississippi was, at
the time he was born near Natchez, the most oppressive place in the United
States to be black. Wright himself would stress the point time and again. His
earliest book, the short stories collected as Uncle Tom’s Children, won first
prize in a contest open to new writers working for the WPA during the Great
Depression; yet, despite the acclaim publication brought him, he added to the
augmented edition of the volume an essay on “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”
that outlined the experience with the caste system that forms the background of
each story. Even earlier, when his first short story was published for a
national audience in 1936, he provided his editor an autobiographical note
stressing how he was forced by the poverty of his family to move all over
Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee; and how he had left school at the age of
fifteen and taken on a string of the menial jobs available to black males. It
is notable, though, that both of these early autobiographical sketches are
associated with literary publication. The outline of Jim Crow experiences
appears in a book that was given wide critical praise; and the short note
detailing typically black southern experiences concludes with the remark, “At
present I’m busy with a novel.” Both statements demonstrated that the forced
segregation and the economic and political practices designed to make black
people inferior did not have their intended effect. Instead of becoming the
victim of white supremacy, Richard Wright, through literacy and imagination,
refused his fate.
Refusal did not mean he could
ignore racism. Rather he took the experiences of being black in the South
during the early years of the twentieth century and made them the material for
literature that would strip away all pretense of rationality from racism, all
justification, and expose the harsh brutality that lay beneath its ideology.
This narrative design gained acclaim for Wright while he was still in his
twenties. In 1937 Story magazine sponsored a contest open to all members of the
Federal Writers Project who had not previously published a book. Wright, who
was working on “Portrait of Harlem” for the American Guide Series issued by the
Writers Project, submitted four stories he had written while living in Chicago.
The contest judges, including the prominent novelist Sinclair Lewis, selected
his manuscript for first prize, and Story arranged for its publication by
Harper and Brothers in 1938 under the title Uncle Tom’s Children. The stories
in this first book of Wright’s develop an ironic play on the popular term for
accommodating to white demands by showing a series of protagonists becoming
increasingly rebellious—less and less “Uncle Toms” and more and more radical—as
they find the means to resist racism. To broaden the social context of the
volume, Wright prepared an expanded edition of Uncle Tom’s Children, including
an autobiographical account entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and the
short story “Bright and Morning Star.”
the success of those stories, however, Wright feared that readers might read
them sentimentally, shed tears rather than express rage. So, for Native Son,
written when he had long since joined the great migration of black people from
the fields of the South to the ghettos of northern cities, he conceived a
protagonist who would defy anyone’s attempt to see him as a mere victim. Bigger
Thomas is, much like Wright, the product of American racial practices; and,
like Wright, he has a core of inviolable selfhood that gradually grows into a
sense of self-determining purpose. But Wright also makes him the murderer of
two women who have no immediately personal responsibility for his condition;
they are, in terms of their role in the fiction, instruments that break the
cycle of fear and self-denigration in which Bigger has been confined by the
social and material conditions of his life. The novel is prophetic of the price
a nation must pay for racism, and to its contemporary audience it was a
shocking reworking of the typical treatment of victims of society.
Native Son will probably remain Wright’s best-known work, it bears close
relationship to all of his subsequent writing, and in Wright’s entire canon we
are able to see a powerful consistency along with a broadening recognition of
the significance of black experience. His autobiographical writings, Black
Boy and American Hunger, present the heroic story of a man who bears some
resemblance to the figure Americans like to call “self-made.” In these works
Wright takes pains to show himself to be an individualist with only his
personal resources of mind and character to rely on, though the signs of his
success are not financial improvement or control of others. Instead, Wright’s
self-portrait is marked by traits of rational understanding of events that
entrap or mystify others and the capacity to use words to bridge the gap
between society’s underclass and his readers.
we must emphasize the unique sources of Wright’s art and philosophy in African
American life, we must recall that significant literature aims to speak to all
readers whether or not they have shared the special experiences of the author.
This universality is often remarked only in writing by members of a nation’s
dominant group; thus, white male novelists are more often called universal than
are black or women novelists. That is a matter of literary politics or the
result of unexamined assumptions. When it comes to “Bright and Morning Star,”
the narrative design is to make every reader, and any reader, the sympathetic
companion of an African American heroine.
John M. Reilly|
In the Heath Anthology
Between the World and Me
Bright and Morning Star
Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas
Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth
Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos
The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference
Pagan Spain: A Report of a Journey into the Past
White Man, Listen!
The Long Dream
Life Under Jim Crow
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Richard Wright: Black Boy
companion site for a video production on Wright; it provides information about the program, biographical data, and a bibliography.