Richard Wright, the grandson of slaves, was born in Natchez, Mississippi, on 4th September, 1908. His father deserted the family in 1914 and when Richard was ten years old his mother had a paralytic stroke. The family were extremely poor and after a brief formal education he was forced to seek employment in order to support his mother.
He later wrote: "The bleakness of the future affected my will to study. What had I learned so far that would help me to make a living? Nothing. I could be a porter like my father before me, but what else? And the problem of living as a Negro was cold and hard. What was it that made the hate of whites for blacks so steady, seemingly so woven into the texture of things? What kind of life was possible under that hate? How had that hate come to be? Nothing about the problems of Negroes was ever taught in the classrooms at school; and whenever I would raise these questions with the boys, they would either remain silent or turn the subject into a joke."
Wright worked in a series of menial jobs in Memphis. He wanted to continue his education by using the local library but Jim Crow laws prevented this. Wright solved the problem by forging notes to pretend he was collecting the books for a white man. During this period he was particularly impressed by the work of H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis.
After passing a civil service examination Wright finds work as a post office clerk. After the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Depression, Wright lost his job. For a period he found employment with the Negro Burial Society but that came to an end in 1931 and he was forced to go on relief. After several temporary jobs the relief office find him work with the Federal Writers' Project. This enables him to publish his short story, Superstition in the magazine, Abbott's Monthly.
In 1932 Wright began attending meetings of the literary group, the John Reed Club. He later wrote: "The revolutionary words leaped from the page and struck me with tremendous force. My attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole. It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home, a functioning value and role."
He met several Marxists at the club and later that year joined the American Communist Party. His poems, short-stories and essays are accepted by various left-wing journals including the New Masses, Left Front and International Literature. His poem, Between the World and Me, and a short story, Big Boy Leaves Homes, were both of based on the lynching of a black man that he had witnessed when he was a child.
In May 1937 Wright moved to New York where he became Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and a new literary quarterly, New Challenge. The following year, Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of short stories about racism in the United States, was published. In 1940, Bright and Morning Star, was published and Wright announced that all royalties would be used to help to pay the appeal costs of Earl Browder, the general secretary of the American Communist Party, who had been sentenced to four years in prison for misusing a passport.
Wright's novel, Native Son, was accepted by the publishers, Harper, in 1940. The Book of the Month Club selected the novel as its March selection, therefore ensuring large sales and publicity. Over a quarter of a million copies were sold within four weeks, making it the fastest selling Harper novel in twenty years.
Irving Howe argued: "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright's novel 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."
Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a black ghetto dweller in Chicago, who is hired by a wealthy family as their chauffeur. He is befriended by the family's liberal daughter and her Communist boyfriend. Thomas accidentally kills the daughter and later he murders his girlfriend after she refuses to help him. He is captured and defended by a Marxist lawyer who tries to get him to articulate the harshness of his life that has led to these violent acts. He is unable to do this and and the end he can only affirm that: "What I killed for, I am!" Some critics attacked the novel for what they believed was an excess of hatred and violence. Marxists also criticised the book for placing too much emphasis on individual rebellion, and not enough on class consciousness and group action.
Wright's next book, Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), was a sociological study of the black migration from the rural South to the urban North. an illustrated folk history of American blacks. Wright deliberately used the word black rather than Negro. Wright argued that the word Negro is a white man's word that artificially limits the scope of a black man's life and helps to set it apart from other Americans.
In the book Wright argues that African civilization is a culture that should inspire pride: "We had our own civilization in Africa before we were captured off to this land. You may smile when we call the way of life we lived in Africa 'civilization', but in numerous respects the culture of many of our tribes was equal to that of the lands from which the slave captors came." The book was hardly reviewed in the United States but received favourable reviews in Europe.
By 1944 Wright felt that the American Communist Party was almost as oppressive as capitalism. He left the party and published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled The God That Failed. He remained a Marxist but as he pointed out in his article, "I wanted to be a communist, but my kind of communist". He added: "I knew in my heart that I should never be able to feel and that simple sharpness about life, should never again express such passionate hope, should never again make so total a commitment of faith."
William Patterson claims that Wright left the party after a dispute with Harry Haywood: "Although he was convinced that the political philosophy of Communism was correct, he did not see a book as a political weapon. He thought that the creative genius of a writer should be freed from all restrictions and restraints, especially those of a political nature, and that the writer should write as he pleased. Unfortunately, Harry Haywood, then top organizer on the Southside, did not exhibit the slightest appreciation that he was dealing with a sensitive, immature creative genius with whom it was necessary to exercise great patience. He criticized some of Wright's earlier characters sharply and tried to force him into a mold that was not to his liking. Name-calling resulted and Haywood used his political position to get a vote of censure against Wright, who thereupon resigned from the Party."
Wright's short novel, The Man Who Lived Underground appeared in 1944. It tells the story of a black man who, after being forced by the police to sign a confession to a crime he had not committed, escapes and hides in a sewer. The book influenced his close friend, Ralph Ellison, in the writing of his novel, the Invisible Man.
Wright's powerful autobiography, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth was published in 1945. After the Second World War, hostility towards writers with left-wing views increased and in 1947 he moved to Paris. He told a friend, that "any black man remaining in the United States after the age of thirty-five was bound to kill, be killed, or go insane." In Paris he joined a group of black writers and artists that included James Baldwin, Chester Himes and Ollie Harrington.
After a spell of inactivity, Wright published two novels, The Outsider (1953) and Savage Holiday (1954). He also travelled to Ghana and wrote an account of his experiences in the book, Black Power (1954). This was followed by a collection of essays, White Man, Listen (1957). The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People, provided a warning of what might happen if those in power continued to deny human rights to black people. In another essay, The Literature of the Negro in the United States, Wright promoted the work of Phyllis Wheatley, William Du Bois, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
Wright's work inspired a generation of black writers. Eldridge Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice (1968): "Of all black American novelists, and indeed of all American novelists of any hue, Richard Wright reigns supreme for all profound political, economic, and social reference."
Wright's final novel, The Long Dream was published in 1958. Richard Wright died of a heart attack in Paris on 28th November, 1960. There had been no history of heart trouble and rumours circulated that he had been murdered. Wright was himself concerned about the possibility of being killed since being investigated by Joseph McCarthy in 1953. Just before his death Wright had received several mysterious phone calls from people with fictitious names.