- from Black Boy
Although mostly self-educated, Richard Wright was one of the first African-American
writers to gain national recognition as a novelist, short-story writer,
poet, and essayist. Born on a plantation in rural Mississippi, young Richard
wasn't allowed to take books from the "whites only" library. To read the
works of H. L. Mencken, for example, he would forge a note from a white
library cardholder: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have
some books by H. L. Mencken?" This unfair system failed to stop Wright
from reading the works of authors that would later influence his writings,
including Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis,
and Theodore Dreiser.
Wright's Black Boy is an autobiography that describes the hardships
of his upbringing in the South and his later move to the difficult life
of urban Chicago. Many critics consider Black Boy to be Wright's
greatest work. It conveys the painful life of an African-American boy
lost in a brutal American environment while infusing themes and ideas
found in Marx, Freud, Joyce, Nehru, Dostoyevsky, and others. The work
not only describes the gritty details of abandonment, poverty, violence,
and prejudice, but it realistically depicts the way that many African
Americans seemed to accept their "place" in white society. At the center
of it all is the narrator, a sensitive young black boy in search of strength
and identity in a difficult environment.
About the Author
by Richard Wright (1908-1960), African-American novelist, short-story
writer, poet, and essayist, was born near Natchez, Mississippi. His family
moved often, making a consistent education difficult for Wright, whose
official schooling ended when he was 15.
He moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, working as a clerk in the U.S.
Post Office. He joined the Communist Party in 1932. Disillusioned with
what he considered the party's narrow focus and rejection of new approaches
and ideas, he resigned in 1944. He married Rose Dhima Meadman in 1938
and later divorced. In 1941 he married Ellen Poplar and had two daughters.
Wright's association with the Works Progress Administration's Federal
Writers Project in Chicago led to his rise as an important American author.
His collection of four stories depicting the life of a black Communist
won a $500 first prize from Story magazine. These later were published
as Uncle Tom's Children. Wright received critical acclaim
and a Guggenheim fellowship for his work, but resolved to write a book
that hit with real force. That book was Native Son (1940),
a groundbreaking work that depicted Bigger Thomas, an African-American
who murders two people and is condemned to death. The focus of much critical
discussion, Native Son shows Bigger to be a terrible product
of his environment, and gives the reader reader an insight into the life
of a man who feels powerless and afraid in white society.
Wright went on to publish a variety of works, including Twelve
Million Black Vocies: A Folk History of the Negro in the U.S.
(1941) and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945).
He moved to Paris and continued to write, publishing works such as The
Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), Black
Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), The
Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1954), White
Man Listen! (1957), The Long Dream (1958), and Eight
Men (short stories, 1961). After his death from a heart attack
in 1960, he was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a resting place
for some of history's most famous artists. American Hunger
(1977), the continuation of his autobiography Black Boy,
was published after his death, as were Lawd Today (1963)
and The Man Who Lived Underground (1971).
- 1. ardentlyeagerly; passionately.
- 2. copiouslyplentifully, much.
- 3. jauntilylight-heartedly.
- 4. dingyshabby.
- 5. flatapartment.
- 6. mulattoperson of mixed black and white ancestry.
- 7. blotterpiece of absorbent paper used to dry a surface
- freshly written on in ink.
- 8. sharecroppertenant farmer; one who works land and in return
-   receives a portion of the crop.
- 9. restlessmarked by a lack of quiet, repose, or rest.
- 10. agonythe suffering of intense physical or mental pain.
Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection
and improve your comprehension of the essay.
Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way
to deepen your interpretation of the selection.
1. Why do you think the judge accepted the father's word that he was
doing all he could?
2. How would you describe the relationship between Wright and his father?
3. To what degree does Wright blame his father's shortcomings on the
oppression of a society dominated by whites?
4. Why do you think the narrator stopped seeing the policeman interviewing
him as "white"?
by Richard Wright
Uncle Tom's Children(1938)
Native Son (1940)
Twelve Million Black Vocies: A Folk History of the Negro in the U.S.
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)
The Outsider (1953)
Savage Holiday (1954)
Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954)
The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956)
White Man Listen! (1957)
The Long Dream (1958)
Eight Men (short stories, 1961)
Lawd Today (1963)
The Man Who Lived Underground (1971)
American Hunger (1977)
James Baldwin. Notes of a Native Son (1955). A powerful African-American
prose writer explains to 1950s white America what it means to be an urban
Claude Brown. Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). Autobiography
of a young man who escaped the Harlem ghetto, gang wars, and prison to
enter law school.
Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
(1845). The life story of the self-educated ex-slave who became a famous
lecturer of the abolitionist movement.
W.E.B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk (1903). An African-American
historian, sociologist, educator, and abolitionist explores the souls
of blacks in nineteenth-century America.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can't Wait (1964). One of
five books in which the great Civil Rights
leader explains his approach to achieving racial justice in America.
Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
(1965). The life story of an influential Black Muslim leader of the mid-
Alice Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi (1969). A candid memoir
of a young Mississippi woman's experience in the Civil
Toni Morrison. Jazz (1992). A lyrical, improvisational story of
black life in 1920s New York City by the first African-American woman
to win a Nobel Prize.
Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982). A best-selling, Pulitzer
prize-winning novel by a prolific fiction writer and women's advocate,
the daughter of Georgia sharecroppers.
Richard Wright. Native Son (1940). A searing novel of the World
War II era, by an African-American author who influenced many later writers.