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Consistently an outsider—a child of the fundamentalist South with an eighth-grade education, a self-taught intellectual, a black man married to a white woman—Richard Wright nonetheless became the unparalleled voice of his time. The first full-scale biography of the author best known for his searing novels Black Boy and Native Son, Richard Wright: The Life and Times brings the man and his work—in all their complexity and distinction—to vibrant life. Acclaimed biographer Hazel Rowley chronicles Wright’s ...
Consistently an outsider—a child of the fundamentalist South with an eighth-grade education, a self-taught intellectual, a black man married to a white woman—Richard Wright nonetheless became the unparalleled voice of his time. The first full-scale biography of the author best known for his searing novels Black Boy and Native Son, Richard Wright: The Life and Times brings the man and his work—in all their complexity and distinction—to vibrant life. Acclaimed biographer Hazel Rowley chronicles Wright’s unprecedented journey from a sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi to Chicago’s South Side to international renown as a writer and outspoken critic of racism.
Drawing on journals, letters, and eyewitness accounts, Richard Wright probes the author’s relationships with Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, his attraction to Communism, and his so-called exile in France. Skillfully interweaving quotes from Wright’s own writings, Rowley deftly portrays a passionate, courageous, and flawed man who would become one of our most enduring literary figures.
“Splendid. . . . Richard Wright is well written, prodigiously researched, and nicely paced, a compelling evocation of the man, his craft, and the different worlds through which he moved.”—Michael J. Ybarra, Wall Street Journal
“A welcome and illuminating work . . . [Rowley] does an outstanding job. . . . Rich and revealing.”—Megan Harlan, San Francisco Chronicle
“A magnificent biography, subtle and insightful. . . . Rowley writes with style and grace, and her research on Wright is prodigious.”—Howard Zinn, The Week
“Thorough and engrossing from the first page to the last”
— Jame Lamar
“In her excellent, entirely readable Richard Wright, Hazel Rowley accomplishes what [previous biographer] Michel Fabre would have liked to do with once-guarded letters, aging witnesses, previously unidentified girlfriends. . . . Mostly, Rowley concentrates on telling Wright’s very powerful story.”
— Darryl Pinckney
“Splendid. . . . Richard Wright is well written, prodigiously researched, and nicely paced, a compelling evocation of the man, his craft, and the different worlds through which he moved.”
— Michael J. Ybarra
“A welcome and illuminating work . . . [Rowley] does an outstanding job. . . . Rich and revealing.”
— Megan Harlan
“A magnificent biography, subtle and insightful. . . . Rowley writes with style and grace, and her research on Wright is prodigious.”
— Howard Zinn
"Rowley is an unobtrusive biographer who has written a well-balanced and thoroughly readable book. It now stands as the best account of Wright's life."
— Peter Byrne
"A first-rate biography worthy of its towering, larger-than-life subject."
— Gerald Early
"Of the books written on Wright to date, [this] new biography . . . is more informative, comprehensive and insightful than any of the earlier efforts. . . . A superb book from start to finish."
— Robert Fleming
"Rowley has produced the definitive Wright biography. . . . Rowley's work is everything a literary biography should be: a rich, impeccably detailed rendering of the historical and biographical circumstances surrounding a writer's work. Critics and teachers of Wright will find Rowley's work indispensable. Through her careful research . . . Rowley offers readers new facets of Wright as a writer and person, demonstrating above all the heavy toll that Wright's heroic, groundbreaking anti-racism took on his financial, political, aned psychological well-being."
— Andrew Strombeck
“Thorough and engrossing from the first page to the last”
Richard Wright's grandparents were slaves. They worked in the cottontrade when Natchez, on the Mississippi, was one of the great cottonports of the world. There was more wealth in Natchez than in anyAmerican city outside New York, and the slave market was the secondbusiest in the South, after New Orleans.
Wright's maternal grandfather, Richard Wilson, labored in the fieldsuntil the early spring of 1865, when he ran away to fight in the CivilWar. The eighteen-year-old managed to dodge the Confederate troopsand cross the Ohio River into the North. In Cairo, Illinois, he enlisted inthe Union navy. He served for three months—from 22 April to 27 July.By then, the war was over. In the South, four million slaves were free.
Full of hope for the future, Wilson returned to Mississippi. Accordingto his grandson, Richard Wilson had been "militantly resentful ofslavery," and back in Mississippi, he used to stand armed guard in frontof ballot boxes to protect blacks who were voting.
On 26 February 1871, Richard Wilson married Margaret Bolden inthe small town of Woodville, in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Eighteen-year-old"Maggie," as she was known, was small and slight, withdeep-set brown eyes and long straight hair. She was so light-skinnedthat until she opened her mouth and spoke pure Southern Negrodialect, strangers thought she was white. Her grandson Richard Wrightbelieved she was a mixture of Irish, Scottish, and French stock, "inwhich Negro blood had somewhere and somehow beeninfused."Like her husband, Maggie was a strong, rebellious, intelligent woman—butilliterate.
The Wilsons settled in Woodville, and according to the 1900 census,Richard worked as a farm laborer. Over the next eighteen years, Richardand Maggie Wilson had nine children—four girls and five boys.Thomas Booker, the eldest son, was born in 1872. The other birth datesare vague. There were no birth records in Mississippi at the time, andthe census records are wildly inconsistent. After Cleopatra, Clark, andCharles, Ella was born in 1883. Daughter Maggie arrived in 1886, followedby Edward, Addie (1891), and Lawrence. Around the turn of thecentury, the family moved to Natchez, living in a wooden house on 20Woodlawn Avenue, eight blocks from the Mississippi.
By the time Richard Wright came to know his grandfather, the oldman was frail, blind in one eye, and suffering from chronic rheumatism.No longer capable of manual work, he was embittered by his longstruggle with the Bureau of Pensions. As a war veteran, Wilson was eligiblefor a disability pension. At first the bureaucrats argued that he hadnot served for the requisite ninety days. Then they claimed that thename entered on the navy rolls was "Richard Vincent," and there wasno evidence that Wilson was the same man. Wilson would dictate yetanother letter and send it off. After a time, an official envelope wouldarrive at the house, and he would ask his grandson to read him the letter.It was always bad news. "I never heard him speak of whitepeople," Richard Wright would recall. "I think he hated them too muchto talk of them."
AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, SOUTHERN BLACKS TEMPORARILY ENJOYED NEW LIBERTIES.For the first time, they voted in elections and held political office. Theyheld protests and demonstrations. The prospect of real freedom was inthe wind. The backlash was immediate. In 1866 a paramilitary whitesupremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, held its first meeting inNashville, Tennessee, vowing to preserve the "Southern way of life."Despite the talk of "forty acres and a mule," Congress did nothing forthe former slaves. Soon they were forced into a new system of servitude.The plantations were divided into small farms, worked by sharecroppers.Since the white owner provided the land, tools, and mule, atharvest time the sharecropper had to pay his boss one half or more ofthe crop as payment. With the remainder, he paid for the food, clothing,and furnishings he had bought throughout the year on credit. If intheory he was free, in reality he was held in bondage by his debts.
By fraud, violence, and intimidation, the progressive Reconstructiongovernments were gradually overthrown. In 1881 the segregation movementbegan. In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court of theUnited States ruled that "separate but equal" was not unconstitutional.
Richard and Maggie Wilson's children, the first generation of Southernblacks to be born free, were still young when the signs "white" and"colored" appeared at bus and railroad stations, public toilets anddrinking fountains, theaters and movie houses. Hospitals were segregated.Nurses could only tend their own race. Jails were segregated.Schools and churches were segregated. Trains, buses, and streetcarswere segregated. Blacks were not permitted in public libraries, restaurants,rooming houses, saloons, billiard halls, or lunch counters—unlessthey were expressly for Negroes. Interracial marriage was prohibited.American apartheid was in place. It was called Jim Crow.
Blacks had to act humble, deferential, and cheerful about it. Theyknew never to contradict a white person—even if they knew that personwas wrong. If a black man did not "know his place"—if he cameover as "sassy" or "biggity"—he would endanger his own life and putothers in the black community at risk.
Teaching was one of the few professions open to black people atthat time. Equipped with the most rudimentary literacy skills themselves,several of the Wilson children taught school. Tom began as ateacher, then he made chairs. Edward was a teacher before becoming aMethodist pastor. Ella was sent to teach the children of sharecroppersin a small rural settlement called Cranfield. Her classes were held in thesmall wooden church. By May, when the thinning, weeding, and choppingtime began, many of her pupils would disappear to help their parentsin the cotton fields.
Richard Wright's paternal grandfather was Nathaniel Wright. He andhis two older brothers worked as slaves on John Rucker's plantation,about twenty-one miles southeast of Natchez. When Natchez wasoccupied by Union forces in July 1863, they left to join the 58th ColoredU.S. Infantry, stationed in the town. But conditions in those makeshiftarmy camps were appallingly unsanitary and disease was rife. Georgeand James Wright, both of whom were married, deserted after a fewmonths. Twenty-one-year-old Nathaniel Wright, still single, stayed on.He was fortunate to survive the experience.
Wright's paternal grandmother, Laura Calvin, was thought to bepartly Choctaw Indian. She and Nathaniel were married soon after thewar. Nathaniel and his brothers were back working on the same plantationas sharecroppers. The couple had four sons: Solomon, Nathan,Rias, and George. Before they reached their teens, the boys wereworking in the cotton fields.
Ella Wilson was twenty-six when she met Nathan Wright. They marriedin Natchez on 19 March 1908. Ella was already three months pregnant.Their home was an unpainted log cabin.
Richard Nathaniel Wright, named after his two grandfathers, wasborn on 4 September 1908. An untrained black midwife presided overthe birth. It was early autumn. The fields were snowy with cotton lint.In the backwoods of Adams County, the only trace of the wider worldwas the hooting of passing trains. And the arrival, from Mexico, of adevilish insect called the boll weevil.
Two years later, on 24 September 1910, Ella gave birth to anotherboy—Leon Alan. The family went to live in Natchez, with Ella's parents.It was his grandparents' house, on Woodlawn Avenue, that youngRichard Wright almost destroyed. One wintry day, logs were cracklingin the fireplace. The boys' grandmother was ill, and their mother hadtold them not to make any noise. Richard, fretful and bored, was standingin front of the fire. It is the dramatic incident with which he beginshis autobiographical narrative, Black Boy.
He had an idea. He plucked straws from the broom and addedthem to the fire. He tugged the long curtains over so they touched thedarting flames. The fire blazed. Flames leaped to the ceiling. The roomturned bright yellow. Suddenly he was terrified. He ran and coweredunder the house. He heard screams, people running over the floorboardsabove him, the clopping of horse hoofs coming toward thehouse, the gongs of fire wagons. His mother rushed about outside, callinghim in a shrill, frightened voice. Eventually, his father found himand tugged him from his hiding place.
According to Black Boy, it was his mother, not his father, who pulleda branch off an elm tree, stripped off the leaves, and lashed him sohard he lost consciousness. For days afterward he lay in bed with ahigh fever, screaming at his hallucinations. ("Whenever I tried to sleep Iwould see huge wobbly white bags, like the full udders of cows, suspendedfrom the ceiling above me.") The doctor apparently said thatthe boy had to be kept quiet; his life was in danger. "For a long time Iwas chastened," Wright writes, "whenever I remembered that my motherhad come close to killing me."
RICHARD WAS THREE YEARS OLD IN 1911 WHEN THE FAMILY MOVED TO MEMPHIS,Tennessee. Ella told him they would travel upriver on the Kate Adams,one of the last of the old steamboats. For days, he plied his mother withquestions. Yes, she assured him; it was a big boat. When he set eyes onthe Kate Adams—a small dirty boat nothing like the gleaming ship hehad imagined—he burst into tears. His father distracted him by takinghim down to the engine room.
Memphis was a shock to the whole family. They had left rural freedomfor a concrete metropolis. Nathan found work as a night porter ina drugstore on Beale Street, and the four of them shared a single bedroomand kitchen in a one-story tenement building. In these crampedquarters, Nathan tried to sleep in the daytime, and the boys wereexpected to be quiet.
In Memphis, Richard became aware that his parents were arguing agreat deal. It seemed to be mostly about food. His father had rigid ideasabout cooking. He liked his biscuits to turn out "cherry brown," andcomplained if they didn't. He disliked vegetables. Richard wouldinvariably wake up in the morning to the sound of his father cominghome from work, then his booming voice complaining about Ella'scooking.
Nathan read the Bible on Sundays and prayed, but it did not seemto Richard Wright, looking back, that his father was genuinely religious.Nathan would have liked to be a preacher, but for some reason, henever heard "God's call." He knew it would make God angry if hepretended to be a chosen man when he was not, but he was bitterabout his plight. Wright recalls:
He prayed and brooded, indulged in gloomy monologues that were the despair of my mother and cowed me and my brother to silence.... The anxiety that came into my mother's face whenever he complained about his not being "called" made me conceive of it as something dreadful, an event that would leave me and my mother and brother alone in the world.
One morning while Nathan was trying to sleep, the household wasdistracted by a stray kitten. It was hungry. Richard and Leon fed it somescraps, and it meowed loudly. Nathan came out and complained aboutthe noise. Richard blamed the kitten. Nathan told them to get rid of thedamn thing—kill it, whatever. He needed his sleep.
"He said for us to kill the kitten," Richard told his brother. He sensedfun ahead, and a way of getting back at his father. Leon ran away, horrified.Richard found some rope and made a noose. He wrapped itaround the kitten's neck and pulled.
His mother swept out of the house, aghast. Richard insisted he hadmerely been obeying his father. Ella hauled him in front of Nathan, nodoubt hoping to see him punished. Nathan bellowed at the boy andturned over to sleep. Ella spent the day torturing her son with talkabout death and God's retribution and raging demons. When eveningcame, he was terrified to go into a room alone. Then she ordered himto go outside and bury the kitten.
"I can't touch it," I whimpered, feeling that the kitten was staring at me with reproachful eyes.
"Untie it!" she ordered.
Shuddering, I fumbled at the rope and the kitten dropped to the pavement with a thud that echoed in my mind for many days and nights.
His mother stood and watched while Richard dug a shallow graveand put the stiff little body in it. Ella made him repeat after her: "DearGod ... spare my poor life, even though I did not spare the life of thekitten ... And while I sleep tonight, do not snatch the breath of lifefrom me." She had Richard weeping with dread.
The arguments between Ella and Nathan were not only about food.Nathan was seeing another woman. Some mornings he did not comehome after work. But for the time being, he still brought home money.He sometimes brought the newspaper for his eldest son, who liked tolook at the pictures. That spring—it was 1912—Richard was fascinatedby the sinking of the Titanic.
Nathan stayed away for longer periods, and then did not comehome any more. In the 1912 Memphis City Directory, Ella Wright islisted at 336 North Pauline Street; Nathan Wright is not listed at all. Atthe age of four, Richard discovered hunger. He learned that men couldnot be trusted, and women by themselves were weak and afraid.
His mother found work as a cook in a white family. It meant leavingthe boys by themselves all day. She would come home exhausted andoften weep. With no one to confide in but her eldest son, she wouldtalk to him for what seemed like hours. He no longer had a father, shetold him, and he must learn to take on the responsibility of the housewhile she worked.
From now on, five-year-old Richard had to help with the shopping.When Ella showed him the corner store, he felt proud to be so grownup. But the next evening, when his mother came home from work tiredand he set out with his basket, he was attacked by a street gang. He ranhome scared. His mother sent him off again. The same thing happenedagain, but this time Ella would not let him inside the house. "I'm goingto teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself," she told him.She gave him a stick to defend himself with. "If you come back intothis house without those groceries, I'll whip you!"
When the boys descended on him again, Richard hit out withfrenzy. "That night," he writes, "I won the right to the streets of Memphis."
Left alone all day, Richard started to roam. He wandered into asaloon, where the local drunks plied him with alcohol. He began tobeg for money. His mother tried everything—beating him, weeping,and praying. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you," she wouldsay.
Sometimes he and his mother enjoyed moments of warm companionship.She read him stories. On Sundays, she helped him decipherwords in the newspaper. One day, when she was at work, the manwho came to deliver coal taught Richard to count to a hundred. "Whenmy mother returned from her job that night I insisted that she stand stilland listen while I counted to one hundred. She was dumfounded."
In Wright's fiction, several of his young male protagonists bask inbeing ill. That way, they briefly enjoy their mother's devoted care. Thenthey get well, and their mother leaves them alone in the house again.
RICHARD HAD JUST TURNED SEVEN WHEN HE BEGAN SCHOOL AT THE HOWE,Institute, in Memphis, in the fall of 1915. He was scared. The neighboringboys had to coax him inside the building. When the teacher askedhim his name and address, he was too frightened to answer.
Mound this time, Ella took Nathan to court. The white judge calledupon Ella. She stood up, burst into tears, and for a long time could notspeak. Eventually she managed to tell the court that her husband haddeserted her, was no longer providing money, and that her childrenwere hungry. Then the judge asked Nathan to speak. As his son rememberedit years later, Nathan stood up, friendly and smiling, and assuredthe court he was doing whatever he could. The judge took his wordfor it.
After that, Nathan Wright completely abandoned his wife and sons.Ella became ill. Richard had to stay home from school to look after her.Then his grandmother arrived, and there was endless worried talk.
One evening, Richard went with his mother to see his father. Later,he would remember standing in a room with a blazing fireplace. Theystood in the doorway. His father was standing next to a womanRichard had never seen before. Richard asked his father for money. Hisfather refused. The strange woman said: "Give the boy a nickel." Ellastarted to weep. The memory would lurk in Wright's mind for years: hisfather standing next to the strange woman, his laughing face lit byflames.
His grandmother, Maggie Wilson, had to go back home, and themoney she brought with her had run out. Ella had no choice but to puther sons into a charitable Memphis orphanage, Settlement House. Theadult Wright did not know whether he and his brother stayed thereweeks or months. But he would never forget his terror and misery. Heand the other children were always hungry, and there was endlesswhining and squabbling. Worst of all was the feeling that his motherhad abandoned him, like everyone else. "During the first days mymother came each night to visit me and my brother, then her visitsstopped. I began to wonder if she, too, like my father, had disappearedinto the unknown. I was rapidly learning to distrust everything andeverybody."
When the director, a thin white woman, asked him to help her inher office, he was overcome, once again, by paralysis. She asked him toblot envelopes with blotting paper, and he wanted to do as he wastold, but he could not move his arm. She became impatient and hecried.
One afternoon, he ran away. Night fell. He was lost and scared, andhe started to cry. A white policeman came up to him. Richard sobbedthat he was trying to find his mother. Then he remembered all the storieshe had heard about white people, and grew more frightened. Severalhours later at the police station, a white policeman with a friendlyface finally got him to speak. Back at the orphanage, the woman directorgave him a fierce whipping.
At last—it was the late spring of 1916 or 1917—Ella came to theorphanage and told the boys to pack their things. They were going totheir Aunt Maggie in Elaine, Arkansas. On the way, they would staywith their grandparents, who had recently moved to Jackson.
Jackson, Mississippi, was a country town with pretensions. The 1922Jackson City Directory boasted about its expanding industries, its well-lit,vice-free streets, and the opportunities it offered for education. Coloredresidents (indicated in the City Directory by a "c" after theirnames) also paid taxes, but benefited from none of these public services.The streets in the black area were unlit, unpaved, and had poordrainage. In the entire town, there was no public high school for blackchildren.
Wright's grandparents, Maggie and Richard Wilson, lived on LynchStreet, on the west side of town, in a modest two-story wooden housethat their son Clark, the carpenter, had bought for them. Richard thoughtit a grand dwelling. The house had front and back porches, and a staircasewith banisters.
His grandmother had become a Seventh Day Adventist, and hadmoved to Jackson to be near a church. Richard was eight or nine. Hisgrandmother, in her early sixties, was small, thin, and fierce. Behind herround steel glasses, her gaze was unblinking. In her long dresses, highcollars, and ruffles, she looked like a prim Victorian woman. But in herown way, she was a thoroughgoing rebel. She never doubted that shewas right, and did not hesitate to speak her mind. Unlike her husband'smore militant rebelliousness, hers was otherworldly. "She was at warwith every particle of reality that ever existed in this world," her grandsonwould write later.
The Wilsons had a lodger, a young schoolteacher, who was alwaysreading books. Richard was fascinated. One day, he found her on thefront porch absorbed as usual, and summoned up the courage to askwhat she was reading. The girl hesitated and looked around. "Yourgrandmother wouldn't like it if I talked to you about novels," she toldhim. He looked so disappointed that she ended up closing her bookand quietly telling him the story of Bluebeard and his seven wives—howBluebeard slayed six of them and hung them up by their hair. Theboy was mesmerized.
The magical moment ended abruptly. In a blaze of fury, Richard'sgrandmother stepped onto the porch. She shouted at the girl: "I wantnone of that Devil stuff in my house!" She slapped her grandson acrossthe mouth. "You're going to burn in hell." Shortly afterwards, theyoung boarder packed her bags.
But she had left a lasting legacy. Richard had discovered the enchantedtreasure chest of fiction. "I vowed that as soon as I was oldenough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feedthat thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, forsecrecy, for bloody murders."
Excerpted from RICHARD WRIGHT by HAZEL ROWLEY. Copyright © 2001 by Hazel Rowley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1997 Tibor Fischer.All rights reserved.
2. The Whisperer of Liberty
3. The South Side of Chicago
4. Words as Weapons
5. Bastard Intellectual
6. Crossing the Divide
7. Change of Fortune
8. Grappling with Bigger
12. Backstage and Onstage: The Drama of Native Son
13. Ellen Poplowitz
14. The Weathercock Turns
15. Wartime Brooklyn
16. A Troublingly Delicate Matter
17. Daily Life
18. Preparing to Leave
19. Crossing the Atlantic
22. Existential Dread
23. Journey to the Gold Coast
24. From Bullfights to Lonely
25. The Lonley Outsiders
26. "I Am Nobody"
27. Stepping Off This Earth
A Note on the Primary Sources