- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

Sometimes I am amazed at the number of new novels by African Americans that keep appearing on the shelves of bookstores. It seems as if everyone is writing one. Even many of my poetry friends have moved into the uncharted waters of longer sentences and plots. Recently, after reading "Dark" by Kenji Jasper and becoming excited by how well he captured the urban streets of Washington through the eyes of his character Thai Williams, I immediately thought about Richard Wright's "Native Son." It's difficult even today to think about young black men and not be haunted by the words Wright placed on paper over 60 years ago.
When one thinks of the most influential African American novelist, the individual who became the model for so many other writers, that person has to be Richard Wright. He deserves a place at the top of any list. The son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Wright changed the way whites saw blacks on the printed page and in life. With the publication of such books as "Uncle Tom's Children," "Native Son," and the autobiographical "Black Boy," Americans were introduced to a realism which had been hiding behind black masks.
A central theme of Wright's work is the examination of black masculinity in American society and how it has been shaped by the issues of race and sex. His fiction is philosophical, and in order to understand race relations, one must examine his books and the important ideas that they raise. Wright's novels are as complex as the man himself. In "Richard Wright: The Life and Times," Hazel Rowley attempts to answer the question, Who was Richard Wright?
In 1947, Wright wrote in his journal: "My deepest thoughts are communicated to no one. No one around me. I just think them and try to write them. How can I live free, freely? That is the question of my life."
With this new biography we now learn many of Richard Wright's private thoughts, including those concerning his sex life, eating habits, and even the literary projects he undertook, completed or failed to complete. Sometimes the biographer goes too far, and the book takes on the candid, chatty feel of talk radio. Moreover, the information culled from the personal letters of Wright's friends, and from interviews with a number of Wright intimates — including Wright's widow Ellen — frequently seems more suitable for tabloid newspapers than a literary biography. Nevertheless, and to the writer's credit, the narrative moves with the energy of a good detective who simply by digging and digging more has achieved a work that also illuminates the sources of many of the ideas that shaped Wright's novels.
Wright's childhood left deep emotional scars. His early years were marked by his father's abandonment, physical abuse by his grandmother, mother, and aunt — as well as the general violence of the South toward blacks. The women in his family locked the youth in a puritanical prison. They demanded Wright's assistance as they battled poverty in such cities as Memphis and Chicago. His various forms of employment and living conditions would provide him with much of the subject matter for his fiction.
Wright's formal education ended in the eighth grade, but his hunger for knowledge only increased as he grew older. His biographer does a good job describing his early years and avoids the psychoanalyzing which plagued Margaret Walker's 1988 "Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work." The turning point in Wright's life was his arrival in Chicago in 1927. His subsequent membership in the John Reed Club and the Communist Party in the 1930s made it possible for him to meet his intellectual peers and participate in discussions and reading groups that would shape him as a writer and intellectual.
During his entire life Wright battled a certain rootlessness and valued the the freedom of his individuality, and ultimately it was his individuality that drove himto conflict and disillusionment with the Communist Party. The biographer identifies Harry Haywood (author of "Black Bolshevik") as Wright's main adversary; along with such personality differences, Wright also was unhappy with how the party had handled "The Negro Question." But while he battled with party politics his reputation grew as a writer.
The biography also highlights the importance of other Wright books that have been overlooked. Among them is "12 Million Black Voices," published in 1941. This book, the author notes, became a bible for Gordon Parks, the esteemed photographer. It provided him with the inspiration to record black life with his camera. Additionally discussed is the modern black novel "Lawd Today!" with the claim that it could be Wright's best work. The book was published shortly after his death.
These pages also contain references to several of Wright's blues connections. He wrote the liner notes for the black folksinger Josh White's album "Southern Exposure" in 1940, pointing out that blues could be protest songs and fighting music. In 1941, Wright wrote the lyrics for a blues song honoring the boxer Joe Lewis. This was "King Joe"; Count Basie wrote the music and John Hammond recorded it with Paul Robeson as singer. In 1949, Wright composed "The FB Eye Blues" an outgrowth of how he saw his life being spied upon by the government.
Much of the meaning and importance of Richard Wright's life is to be found in how he lived abroad, and was affected by the anti-communism that developed in the United States after World War II and during the 1950s. Why Wright wanted to stay away from Ameirca, is a question many other African blacks would confront. It is possible to examine his life and gain a better understaning of writers like Chester Himes and James Baldwin, individuals who followed Wright to Europe. They suffered from physical and spiritual hunger — and an Ameircan hunger.
In his later years, Wright became intrested in international affairs. He was close to Pan-Africanist George Padmore and the African political leader Kwame Nkrumah. In 1955 he attended the Bandburg Conference in Indonesia, a gathering of representatives from 29 Asian and African nations. Wright wanted to know more about the conditions of people of color in other countries, and his involvement in that arena has led to the circulation of many rumors surrounding his death. His biographer offers a good account of Wright's last days. He died in France in 1960 at the age of 52. During an illness in his later years he wrote about 4,000 haiku. In these short Japanese poems one can hear an echo of Wright's life:

I am nobody
A red stinking autumn sun
Took my name away

Wright's life was a blues song filled with sadness but also with wonderful accomplishments. Hazel Rowley helps us remember them, along with remembering the man and his time.

E. Ethelbert Miller is the author of "Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide