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Richard Wright: A life lived through words

February 2015

Richard Nathaniel Wright, born in 1908 on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, was perhaps one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Abandoned by his father when he was but five years old, Richard’s early childhood was plagued by abject poverty. Because of limitations imposed on African Americans in the deep South, he and his contemporaries were only allowed to acquire a ninth grade education. In 1925, after he was unable to find suitable employment that would allow him to save enough money to flee to the North, Richard boarded a train bound for Memphis, Tennessee, where he hoped to improve his financial circumstances. Here, after only a few weeks in the city, he was able to find a job working at an optical company. Soon he was able to save enough money to send for his mother and brother. He eventually found his way to Chicago in 1927. 

An avid reader enamored by the use of “words as weapons,” Richard’s first serious attempt at writing came after being introduced to the work of H.L. Mencken, a white man who challenged the status quo and used the power of his pen to shine a light on the ignorance and hypocrisy of racism. Indeed, it was the writing of H.L. Mencken and his subsequent exposure to authors such as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson that persuaded Richard to surmount the limitations of his upbringing to become, in his words, a “chronicler of reality.” And that he was. His first major work of fiction, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), was released to rave reviews and garnered several prestigious awards, as well as afforded him with his long-eluded financial security that he sought. He would go on to write Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1944), both seminal works that would catapult him to the heights of literary fame, placing him alongside his heroes. 

I was nineteen years old when I first encountered the writings of Richard Wright. The year was 1989, and I had just come to prison after being sentenced to Life for murder. It was one of the lowest points of my existence. In an attempt to salvage what remained of my shattered self-esteem, I decided to enroll in the GED program with the hopes of ultimately pursuing a college education. As fate would have it, Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, was included as part of the prep course for reading, and it opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing and being; it changed my life. 

As it turns out, Richard and I had a lot in common and shared some of the same struggles and pains. Like him, my father also abandoned me at an early age, leaving me to weather the inevitable storms of life on my own. My childhood was steeped in hunger and want, forcing me to forgo the typical upbringing of my peers. When my friends were outside playing, I was scrambling—delivering newspapers, cutting grass, and scouring the neighborhood for discarded pop bottles. A bright student, I excelled at my studies and was continually at the top of my class; still, like Richard, the ninth grade would turn out to be the last full year of my formal education. As far as I was concerned, the lessons I was learning in the streets seemed more important than the lessons I was learning in the classroom. 

It’s amazing to think that a book written in the 1940s could stretch across five decades and find a receptive soul, but before I could finish the first chapter I knew that I was about to undergo a life-altering experience. Before reading Black Boy, I was stuck in a state of feeling sorry for myself, bemoaning the consequences of my poor judgment and looking for someone to carry the shame of my failures. And here, in the plain, poignant recounting of his life, Richard Wright informed me that we, as individuals, are responsible for what happens to us in this world. Yes, life is unfair and there will always be convincing excuses to explain why things don’t turn out in our favor; however, at the end of the day, it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond, that has the final say. 

“What we do, not what we profess—that’s the test,” warned Richard Wright. “Who we are, not what we have—that’s the thing!”

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