Fighting a culture of terror with writing

Richard Nathaniel Wright's path to writing the first accurate portrayal of the racial divide in the U.S.

Mike Selby

In 1925, 18-year-old Richard Nathaniel Wright began to flip through the Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ daily newspaper), when he was struck by a headline which read “Mencken is a fool!”

The article which followed condemned the “Sage of Baltimore” as a moron — something Wright had trouble getting his head around. The newspapers Wright read disparaged people all the time, but this was the first time he encountered criticism heaped on someone who was …well, someone who was white.

Wright was born and raised on a dead plantation in Roxie, Mississippi. His early life was marked by grinding poverty, racism, and violence. A stubborn and curious child, Wright’s family did everything they could to discourage his intellect (partly due to religious mania, partly to stop him from getting killed). Once, a young school teacher had rented a room in his home, until she was caught reading to Wright from a novel. His family denounced her as evil and evicted her. This incident was telling, as people would be telling Wright what he could and could not read his entire life.

Except for the Bible, all books were forbidden to him, and his grandmother would burn any book she found him with, even school books. As an early teen, Wright was allowed to take on a paper route, as his grandmother had deemed newspapers acceptable. Illiterate, she did not realize novels were often serialized by papers, and Wright was able to read Zane Grey’s ‘Riders of the Purple Sage.’

Yet after finishing the first instalment of Grey’s novel, Wright began to read the rest of the newspaper. Unfortunately, all he found were articles of racial hate, and calls to lynch all African Americans, especially ones who could read. He never delivered another paper.

After high school he relocated to Memphis, finding work as an optician’s apprentice. It was here he encountered the Mencken article, and he felt he needed to find out as much about Mencken as possible. Wright’s place of work was only a block from the massive Riverfront Public Library, but they did not loan books to African Americans.

He explained this difficulty to one of his bosses, who handed him his own library card. He also wrote a note stating he gave permission for Wright to pick up books by Mencken for him. He also told Wright he could forge his name on notes like this one anytime he wanted to. At the library, Wright handed the librarian the note. She collected two books by Mencken, but paused before she handed them over.

“You’re not using these books, are you?” she asked.

“Oh no, ma’am. I can’t read.”

One of the books was titled ‘Prejudice,’ a term Wright was very familiar with.

Wright would mark his life starting the moment he read that book, as Mencken discussed authors Wright had never heard of: Anatole France, Joseph Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy.

By forging more notes and reading these authors, Wright came to believe that he had “somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. A feeling of something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.”

As his intellect began to grow, so did the violence against African Americans, and Wright knew his chances of living a long life in the South were limited. In 1927 he moved to Chicago, where he was free to read what he wanted. It was also here he found he had a knack and passion for writing. A series of short stories he wrote about the African Americans’ struggle for individual freedom was published in 1938 by Harpers as “Uncle Tom’s Children.” He followed this in 1940 with the novel ‘Native Son.’ Based on the arrest and execution of a real Chicago murderer, ‘Native Son’ became an instant bestseller, making Wright the wealthiest African American author in the world.

More importantly, it was the first book to accurately portray the racial divide which continued to plague the U.S. Irving Howe would later write: “The day ‘Native Son’ appeared, American culture was changed forever. [Wright] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.”

He would write much more before dying of a heart attack at age 52, but ‘Native Son’ remains the high water mark of his career. As he wrote in his autobiography ‘American Hunger’ (now published under the title Black Boy), “This is the culture from which I sprang. This is the terror from which I fled.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library


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