Illinois Native Son Richard Wright Turns 100

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THE JOURNEY MADE by Richard Wright
from son of a Mississippi sharecropper
to internationally-known writer is a classic
American success story. Born September
4, 1908, Wright would have
been 100 this month if he had lived this
long. Describing in vivid detail the
psychological terror waged on
African Americans, Wright’s stories
are still relevant for those working
for social justice and human rights.
Wright was born just outside
Natchez, Mississippi on a former
slave plantation. There was a centenary
celebration for Wright in
Natchez this last February which I
attended. In addition to meeting
Julia Wright, his daughter who travelled
all the way from Paris, France,
I got the chance to take a bus tour to
the old Rucker plantation. Just
across the road from where Wright’s
family members are buried, a new
private prison was being constructed—
today’s modern plantation.
The crow flew so fast
That he left his lonely caw
Behind in the fields.
Although his family moved out of the Mississippi Delta,
memories of the Deep South stayed with Wright for many
years. He used this material to write his first short stories
like “Down by the Riverside,” about the 1927 Mississippi
Flood, which includes scenes strikingly similar to Hurricane
Katrina. Wright told the complete story of his southern
upbringing in his autobiographical Black Boy, a book
which every youth today should read.
Native Son, his most famous novel, is set in Chicago, a
city that Wright knew well. The protagonist, Bigger
Thomas, is a typical black youth struggling to survive on
the streets of Chicago. In a harrowing series of events, he
accidentally kills a white woman, is accused of rape, and is
chased down by a police-led white mob. After a trial, Bigger
is sentenced to death. Ultimately, the novel is an exploration
of black oppression and an early call to end the
death penalty. Wright himself was a prison activist, appealing
to the New Jersey Governor in 1941 for the release of
black inmate Clinton Brewer.
Radicalized by the Great Depresssion, Wright had been
a member of the Communist Party in Chicago and was
nurtured by the John Reed Club, a communist writing
cell. Also a founding member of the South Side Writers’
Group, Wright was part of Chicago’s
Black Renaissance, along with other
important figures like Horace Cayton,
Margaret Walker, Katherine
Dunham, Arna Bontemps, and Fenton
Landmarks of Wright’s era still
exist on Chicago’s South Side. The
George Hall Branch Library, which
just celebrated its 75th birthday, is at
44th and Michigan. Wright did
research there while working on the
Federal Writers’ Project. The South
Side Community Arts Center, founded
in 1940 by Margaret Burroughs, is
just up the street at 3831 South
Michigan. Archives containing this
history are available to scholars, students,
and the public at the Vivian
Harsh Collection (named after the
head librarian of the original Hall
Branch) at the Carter G. Woodson
Regional Library at 95th and Halsted.
Wright left the United States in 1946 because of the
persistent racial barriers he faced and the repressive political
climate. Moving to France, he said famously that there
was, “more freedom in one square block of Paris than
there is in the entire United States of America!”
Whose town did you leave
O wild and drowning spring rain
And where do you go.
There was also a centenary celebration for Wright this
summer in Paris, where he lived the last years of his life
and is buried. It was attended by William Maxwell, professor
of African American literature at the University of Illinois,
who told me, “The Wright centenary conference in
Paris was both inspiring and sobering. Julia Wright welcomed
an international group of fans, critics, and organizers.
But she also emphasized that the American Embassy,
the elegant site of several conference events, was ironically
a location where Wright feared to tread. There he was regularly
quizzed about his political beliefs when reapplying
for his passport.”
I am nobody
A red sinking Autumn sun
Took my name away
Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Wright’s books
received little attention in the 1950s. Although he was an
internationally known writer, he was shunned by his
home country. He wrote over one thousand Haiku poems
toward the end of his life that capture the emotional
estrangement he felt.
FB Eye Blues
Woke up this morning
FB eye under my bed
Said I woke up this morning
FB eye under my bed
Told me all I dreamed last night,
Every word I said.
The malaise many of his biographers have attributed to
these later years was partly due to his constantly being followed
in Paris by the FBI and CIA. Indeed, the FBI file on
Wright is 244 pages long. In 1960, Wright died of a sudden
heart attack. He was 52 years old. One of his best
friends, black cartoonist Ollie Harrington, questioned the
circumstances of what he called a “mysterious death.”
In the last years of his life, Wright had travelled to West
Africa as a guest of independence leader Kwame Nkrumah.
He reported on the 1955 Bandung Conference, an historic
meeting of oppressed nations in Indonesia. Although he
had denounced communism in the 1940s, a decade later
he worked to free black Communist Henry Winston whose
health had deteriorated while he was held in a federal
prison. Throughout his life, Wright was a politically-committed
artist who skillfully used his words as weapons.
In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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