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Erik Visits an American (Abroad) Grave, Part 387

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This is the grave of Richard Wright.

Born in 1908 on a plantation outside of Natchez, Mississippi, Wright grew up sadly not too different than so many black agricultural families. His father walked away when he was a child. His mother moved the family to her sister’s place in Elaine, Arkansas, but then her sister’s husband was killed, probably by a white man who was jealous of his successful saloon business. Such murders get less attention than the more organized lynchings of the period, but were at least as common. His mother than had a stroke and he had to move in with another uncle. Finally, in 1920, the completely unschooled Wright moved with his recovering mother to Jackson, living with his maternal grandmother. He finally got that schooling and excelled rapidly, being promoted to sixth grade in two weeks. His grandparents were Seventh-Day Adventists. Growing up in that environment made him chafe immediately and he developed a lifelong hostility to all religion. He then went to high school in Jackson, transferred to a school in Memphis, but soon wanted to leave the South behind. Like so many other African-Americans in the 1920s, he moved to Chicago in 1927.

Wright got a job as a postal clerk, was laid off in 1931, and flirted with the Communist Party during these years, being involved in the very active left of the Great Depression. The communism didn’t stick though. Though he worked for the National Negro Congress, the CP black rights organization, a paper he edited a paper was shut down by the CP in 1937, outraging Wright. He was ostracized because of his race by some New York communists and even started getting into violent fights with them. This was the age of Stalinism after all and intra-party violence against anyone deviating from the party line was too common.

Anyway, he moved to New York permanently in 1937, worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, started publishing more of his fiction, and then came out with Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938. This collection of four stories, some of which are about lynching, got Wright massive attention, made him a good bit of money, and restored his reputation with the CP, at least for awhile. This was followed by Native Son in 1940. Native Son was a huge hit. Telling the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man employed by some white liberals who semi-accidentally kills their daughter while trying to kiss her drunk body and needed to stifle her noises, this was a Book of the Month Club selection. Today, it reads as a problematic book, at least to me. Showing how Bigger only gains control over his own life through his crimes, the book is brilliant, but also, one can argue, as James Baldwin famously did, going after his former mentor, reinforces ideas of blackness as monstrous. Baldwin’s criticism primarily revolved around painting black life as awful so as to encourage white people to act to help them, the kind of “protest novel,” as Baldwin put it, that the younger author believed was counterproductive and poorly written. Now, Wright has based this in part of his own life and the desperation and poverty he had experienced in his early years in Chicago. And it is a powerful novel in some ways. But it’s hard to read it without hearing Baldwin’s critique in the back of your mind, or my mind at least.

Wright followed this up with Black Boy, his memoir about life in the South, in 1945. It also sold huge numbers. Now one of the most famous Americans internationally, he went to France after the end of the war. He loved it, feeling far more comfortable there than he every had in the United States. He became friends with Sartre and Camus. He mentored the young Baldwin, before their relationship broke over the latter’s criticism. He became a French citizen in 1947 and finally published The Outsider, his second novel, in 1953. This novel about a black man’s interactions with the Communist Party in New York was also autobiographical and explores Wright’s break with the party in the mid-40s. I haven’t read it and I should, although I can’t imagine any writing better about the relationship between the Communist Party and African-Americans than Ellison’s Invisible Man. Wright actually starred in an Argentine production of Native Son in 1950 as Bigger Thomas, which given that he was 42 years old and Thomas is supposed to be 17 or so seems problematic. I don’t know if anyone has seen this, but I am certainly curious.

Wright also struggled with the contradictions of being part of the anti-communist left in the Cold War. He rejected direct CIA involvement in the Cold War, but did contribute to anti-communist anthologies and gave the U.S. government a report on Kwame Nkrumah, the soon to be first leader of an independent Ghana, when he visited in 1953. He continued writing, though most of these books did not have the previous overwhelming positive and lucrative reception. Deciding the French were too obsequious to U.S. foreign policy demands, he decided to move to London, but between getting sick with dysentery that was probably related to his previous travels to Africa and problems with the British government, he soon regretted that decision. Sick, he died of a heart attack in 1960. He was only 52. His last major address basically blamed Baldwin’s attacks on him on the racial reality of America reducing militant people to slaves when they questioned the racial status quo.

Richard Wright is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.

If you would like this series to visit other legendary African-American writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Zora Neale Hurston is in Fort Pierce, Florida and Wallace Thurman is in Staten Island, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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