Writer Richard Wright became the most prominent African-American scribe when his novel, Native Son was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man who lives in abject poverty in Chicago during the Great Depression. This theme of rage and angst was present in much of Wright's work throughout his career.
Wright was born on Rucker's Plantation in Mississippi--between Roxie and Natchez. His father, Nathaniel, was a sharecropper on the plantation and his mother, Ella Wilson, was a former schoolteacher. When Wright was five, his father left the family. As a result, his mother took domestic jobs and Wright and his brother were sent to an orphanage. When Wright was 12, he went to live with his maternal grandmother in Jackson, Miss. In Jackson, Wright began his career as a writer when his first short story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre" was published in the Southern Register in 1924. The following year, Wright graduated from Smith Robertson Junior High School as the class valedictorian.
Wright attended Lanier High School but left school to find work in Memphis. While working in Memphis, Wright began reading the works of H.L. Menken.
Life in Chicago
Determined to leave the South, Wright boarded a train bound for Chicago in 1927. Like thousands of other African-Americans seeking a better life, Wright was a part of the Great Migration. In Chicago, Wright found work as a postal clerk and continued to read contemporary American literature. Wright also began to attend meetings of the John Reed Club. At these meetings, Wright met members of the Communist Party. Soon after, Wright joined the Communist Party. He also began publishing poetry such as "I Have Seen Black Hands," "We of the Street," and "Red Leaves of Red Books" in several Communist publications such as The New Masses. In 1935, Wright was working the Federal Negro Theater, writing several short stories and a novel entitled Lawd Today, which was published in 1963.
New York City
In 1937, Wright moved to New York City and continued to write. He collected oral histories for the Federal Writer's Project and the Federal Theater Project with Arna Bontemps. Wright helped develop the New Challenge magazine. He also served as the Harlem editor of Daily Worker and as co-editor of Left Front. A year after his arrival in New York, Wright published a collection of short stories entitled Uncle Tom's Children. The collection won first prize from a contest sponsored by Story magazine for authors who participated in the Federal Writer's Project. In addition, Wright received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would allow Wright to focus on writing a novel. In 1938, Wright wrote the controversial essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," which criticized the efforts of Harlem Renaissance writers.
In 1940, Wright published Native Son. Selling more than 200,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication, Native Son became the first bestselling novel by an African-American author. It was also the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American author. In 1941, Wright was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Following the publication of Native Son, Wright became the wealthiest and one of the most respected African-American writers in the United States. Yet, the novel received criticism as well. Some critics did not like the novel's protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Nevertheless, Native Son was turned into a theatrical production and was directed by Orson Welles on Broadway.
Life After Native Son
Wright published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States was published in 1941. The book was a collection of photographs taken by photographers as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) with words written by Wright.
In 1945, Wright published his autobiographyBlack Boy.
A year after publishing his autobiography, Wright moved to Paris to live as an expatriate. Wright continued to publish essays in several magazines. He published another novel, The Outsider in 1953.
Wright died on November 26, 1960 in Paris of a heart attack.