Read an Excerpt
A Certain Place:
a Climate for Genius
Richard Wright came out of hell. All his life devils were pursuing him. Anger was the name of one fiend. Ambivalence was another two-faced devil teaching him the ways of two worlds, black and white, simultaneously. Alienation was another devil who like the horror in the Greek myth gnawed at his vitals without ever consuming him or being consumed. Finally, aberration was another devil that tore him apart while all of these devils lived in the hell of his daily environment and reminded him of his heredity. Wright's human condition predestined him thus to be shaped in a crucible of racial suffering, a tormenting cauldron of pure hell. All his life he agonized, and all his days he searched for meaning.
The state of Mississippi, Adams County, U.S.A., where Richard Wright was born, September 4, 1908, was a veritable hell. For Wright it was rural, black, and poor. I can remember his telling me in 1936, "I was born too far back in the woods to hear the train whistle, and you could only hear the hoot owls holler." His birthplace in those Mississippi woods was like a big black hole that followed him in his memory all the days of his life, and it reappears in his fiction, his nonfiction, and his poetry.
By taking the main highway, U.S. 61, north from Natchez toward Vicksburg and turning right at the sign for Washington on the road to Roxie, one travels through three plantations. On the right is the plantation named Travellers Rest, that stretches some three thousand acres north, south, and east. Then there are the towns of Fenwick and Cranfield and the RobinsonRoad on the left. This road leads into the two plantations of Rucker and the Hoggatt. The Hoggatt Family has owned this land since 1700. Richard Wright's paternal forebears lived for three generations on Travellers Rest. Here his grandfather lived with his four sons and two daughters.
Grandfather Wright was married to Laura Calvin Wright, who was three-fourths Choctaw Indian. Of the four sons-Solomon, Nathaniel Rias, and George the laughing-eyed Nathan or Nate (called Naze) married Ella Wilson, the school teacher at Tates Magnolia Baptist Church. Nathaniel met Ella at a Methodist church social in Cranfield. In time they became the proud parents of Richard Nathaniel (named for his father and his maternal grandfather, Richard Wilson), born in a rented sharecropper's house on Rucker's Plantation, twenty-five miles north of Natchez. Although Wright's grandfather, his Uncle Solomon, and later his first cousin Louis (Hand) Wright, maintained Post Office Box 57 on Route 1 marked "Roxie," Wright was not born in Roxie, which is still miles away from Rucker's Plantation. As rural free delivery boxes are numbered, the post office box is halfway between Cranfield and Roxie.
There are two Baptist churches on Robinson Road, Robinson Chapel and Tates Magnolia. Wright's earliest memory was of his mother holding him by the hand and taking him with her to school every morning at Tates Magnolia Church. They came out of Rucker's woods, descended a worn path to Robinson Road, and proceeded to the one-room church. Between these two churches is a cemetery where most of the Wright family is buried. Wright's father, Nathaniel, is buried here in an unmarked grave beside his brothers and father.
Thirty years before the Civil War, Natchez was the home of some of the richest white people in the nation. The city was built around their homes, but the plantations were in the outlying rural districts along the river. Palatial houses, even antebellum mansions, built by black slaves who were excellent craftsmen, and who cut timber out of virgin forests of cypress, pine, and oak, still attest to the vast wealth of this river city. One mansion, Stanton Hall, has doors fitted entirely with hardware of sterling silver. Against this background of affluence and agrarian glory, now long since fallen on poorer days, was the absolute poverty and squalor of most of the area's black population. For three decades of slavery in the early nineteenth century there were vast plantations surrounding Natchez, and all these feudal lands were dotted with slave quarters and cabins. After the fratricidal war, many ex-slaves remained in the crop-lien or sharecropping system and became mere peons.Wright's grandfathers on both sides were examples of the remnants of slavery. Grandfather Wright owned and farmed land he had farmed in slavery; Grandfather Wilson had served as a Union soldier and had been given an honorable discharge, but he never received his pension.
During Reconstruction, lynching and mob rule became an accepted part of the social order in Adams County, as it did throughout Mississippi, the South, and the rest of the United States. According to the statistics of lynchings compiled by Monroe Work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the studies made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), thousands of lynchings occurred in the United States between 1890 and 1952. Black male victims were usually accused of murder or rape or both, while black women were generally accused of incendiarism, arson, or poisoning. In many instances the accusations were false. Wright's fiction and poetry contain stories of lynchings which illustrate his preoccupation with this social issue. In research conducted in the 1930s for the book Deep South, white residents of Natchez who were questioned by white interrogators denied that black people were regularly lynched in Adams County.
"There hasn't been a lynching here in Adams County in seventy-five years. We don't lynch in this County because we could be lynching our kinfolks. Now they lynch in Bolivar County."
At the time of the study, the white chief of police lived openly with his black concubine, who was one of the largest contributors to the local black Baptist church.