Richard Wright
One of the Most Powerful Writers of the 20's


Richard Nathaniel Wright was born 4 September 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi, and died 28 November 1960 in Paris, France. One could sum up his life a series of three stages:

His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked as a sharecropper until Wright was three, when his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. His father deserted them there, and Wright grew up in extreme poverty, shuttling between relatives. His tumultuous childhood was further complicated by his mother's frequent illnesses. She suffered a stroke in 1919, and in 1920 Wright was sent to his grandmother's home in Jackson, where he remained until 1925.

Wright had little formal education. He left school for the last time in the mid-1920s and went to work in Memphis, where he read voraciously. He migrated to Chicago in 1927 at the age of nineteen, finding a job as a postal clerk and continuing to educate himself. He became interested in communism during this period and joined the Communist Party in 1933. His ties to the communist party continued after moving to New York in 1937. He became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine, New Challenge.

In 1938 four of his stories were collected as Uncle Tom's Children. He then received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first novel, Native Son (1940).  In 1939, he married Dhimah Rose Meadman, a white dancer, but the two separated shortly thereafter.  In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist Party, and they had two daughters, Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.  He eventually resigned in 1944, however, disillusioned with the party's ideological rigidity.


Richard Wright was one of America's greatest black writers.  He was among the first African American writers to achieve literary fame and fortune, but his reputation has less to do with the color of his skin than with the superb quality of his work.  His life as the as the son of an illiterate sharecropper was far from affluent.  Though he spent only a few years of his life in Mississippi, those years would play a role in his most important works: Native Son, a novel, and his autobiography, Black Boy.

Richard Wright became an essential figure in the development of African American literature, influencing such authors as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Richard Nathaniel Wright has been called one of the most powerful writers of the twentieth century. The central characters in his fiction are usually bitter, alienated black men, and his treatment of their experience provides a vivid portrayal of both the economic and psychological effects of racism.


Wright played an important role in many of the important social movements of his time. In his autobiography Black Boy, he follows him in a journey  through the Chicago black cultural Renaissance of the '30s, the Communist Party during the Depression, the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era and the American expatriate community in Paris in the '50s.

This biography urges us to take a fresh look at the often-neglected work of Wright's exile years including The Long Dream and his championing of Pan Africanism and the newly emerging nations of Africa and Asia.  By the time of his mysterious death in 1960 at the age of 52, Wright had left an indelible mark on African American letters, indeed, on the American imagination.  Wright's life-long belief that "words can be weapons against justice."

The importance of his works comes not from his technique and style, but from the impact his ideas and attitudes have had on American life. Wright is seen as a seminal figure in the black revolution that followed his earliest novels. Bigger Thomas, the central figure of Native Son, is a murderer, but his situation galvanized the thought of black leaders toward the desire to confront the world and help shape the future of their race.

As his vision of the world extended beyond the U.S., his quest for solutions expanded to include the politics and economics of emerging third world nations. Wright's development was marked by an ability to respond to the currents of the social and intellectual history of his time. His most significant contribution, however, was his desire to accurately portray blacks to white readers, thereby destroying the white myth of the patient, humorous, subservient black man.


California Newsreel Richard Wright

University of Mississippi:Richard Wright

Richard Wright's Homepage

Richard Wright "Writing and Resistance"

Richard Wright Teacher's Guide (Sociology)