Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was a highly influential American author and poet. Born in Mississippi at the turn of the century, he lived a difficult life in which he saw the horrors of racism firsthand. Dropping out of school in 9th grade due to his frustration with the racist administration, he vigorously educated himself through novels and other literary works. A desire to escape the Jim Crow South caused him to settle in Chicago at the tender age of 17, where he hoped to start a career as a writer. There, he became involved with left-wing politics and began what would become a long and troubled relationship with the Communist Party.
Wright's first real success came with a collection of novellas called Uncle Tom's Children, which he based on his experiences with Jim Crow and racial violence in the South. Despite the book's dark tone and rather brutal imagery, the book was highly acclaimed, and the proceeds from the book were enough for Wright to move to Harlem, the "Mecca of the New Negro." It was here that he befriended fellow Black author Ralph Ellison, with whom he became Heterosexual Life-Partners. It was also where that he would write the novel that would become his most famous and momentous: Native Son. Native Son, a protest novel depicting the psychological effect of white supremacy on a young Black man, was an instant classic, thrusting Wright into international fame and recognition and making him one of the richest and most successful Black writers of his age. The book would eventually inspire Black Power movements in America — the Black Panthers even made it required reading — as well as national liberation struggles in Africa: no lesser personages than Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah drew inspiration from the book. Wright later penned another bestseller in the form of his Biography à Clef, Black Boy.
The major themes of Wright's works are American race relations filtered through the lens of his personal experience, the psychology of oppression, and his own disillusionment with Communism. The graphic violence and sexuality depicted in his works oftentimes finds him on ban lists in schools and libraries.
Not to be confused with Richard William "Rick" Wright of Pink Floyd fame.
Richard Wright's works include:
- Native Son, a novel featuring Bigger Thomas, a black teenager who accidentally kills a white woman and tries vainly to flee from the consequences. It serves as a character study of how a young black man is alienated from his humanity by the white world around him.
- Black Boy, a semi-autobiographical novel in which Wright depicts his childhood in Mississippi, adult life in Chicago, and his time with, and eventual break from, the Communist Party. A second half, American Hunger, was eventually included when the book was posthumously republished.
- Uncle Tom's Children, the first book Wright successfully published, a collection of 4 short stories about racism in Mississippi. An additional two stories were added to the collection after the first publishing. According to Wright, his disappointment at the overly-sentimental critical reception of this book was what inspired him to write Native Son.
- Lawd, Today! Wright's first literary effort, published posthumously despite being written long in advance of Native Son. It is an extremely gritty novel written from the point of view of the abusive, Nazi-sympathizing, profligate postal worker Jake Jackson. The novel was polarizing on release, some finding the rawness of the storytelling a clear indicator of Wright's talent as a novelist even early on and others finding it a little too gritty to be enjoyable to read.
- Black Power, a memoir/essay about Wright's travels in Africa and involvement with the anti-colonial struggles in what would eventually become Ghana. Also the first ever use of the term "Black Power."
- White Man, Listen!, a collection of lectures Wright gave on the condition of oppressed peoples in African colonies and America, addressed to a white audience.
- The Man Who Lived Underground, a novel in which a black man is framed for a double homicide by police and beaten until he signs a confession. Published posthumously in 2021 after being rejected by publishers in the 1940s.