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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Richard Wright

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.”

Despite 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.

Though 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.

Though 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
Howard University

In the Heath Anthology
Between the World and Me (1934)
Bright and Morning Star (1940)

Other Works
Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (1938)
Native Son (1940)
Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941)
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)
The Outsider (1953)
Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954)
Savage Holiday (1954)
The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956)
Pagan Spain: A Report of a Journey into the Past (1957)
White Man, Listen! (1957)
The Long Dream (1958)
Eight Men (1961)
Lawd Today (1963)
American Hunger (1977)

Cultural Objects
IMAGE fileLife Under Jim Crow

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Richard Wright
Provides a chronology, some images, primary and secondary materials.

Richard Wright: Black Boy
companion site for a video production on Wright; it provides information about the program, biographical data, and a bibliography.

Secondary Sources