Richard Wright (author)

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Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was an American author of powerful, sometimes controversial novels, short stories and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerns racial themes. His work helped redefine discussions of race relations in America in the mid-20th century.


Early life

Wright was born on the Rucker Plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, the first of two sons to Ella Wilson, an elementary schoolteacher, and Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate, alcoholic sharecropper.

In late 1912, the family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, and Nathaniel abandoned the family several months later. In 1914, when Ella became ill, Wright and his brother were placed in the temporary care of the Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage. In 1916, the boys were reunited with their mother, and they relocated to Jackson, Mississippi to move in with his maternal grandmother Margaret Wilson.

Later, the family moved in with Wright's aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas, but left after racists murdered Wright's uncle, Silas Hoskins, in 1916. The family then fled to West Helena, where they lived in fear in rented rooms for several weeks.[1]

In 1917, Mrs. Wright took the boys to Jackson, Mississippi for several months, but by the winter of 1918 they had returned to West Helena. In 1919, Mrs. Wright suffered a stroke, causing further family disintegration. Wright reluctantly chose to live with his Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he could be near his mother, but restrictions placed on him by his aunt and uncle became too much for the boy. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Wright was permitted to return to Jackson, to live with his Grandmother Wilson.

Wright lived with his maternal grandmother in Jackson from early 1920 until late 1925. Here he felt stifled by his aunt and grandmother, who tried to force him to pray that he might find God. He later threatened to leave home because Grandmother Wilson refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath. Early strife with his aunt and grandmother left him with a permanent, uncompromising hostility toward religious solutions to everyday problems.

At the age of fifteen, Wright penned his first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre". It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. In 1923, Wright excelled in grade school and was made class valedictorian of Smith Robertson junior high school. Determined not to be called an Uncle Tom, he refused to deliver the assistant principal's carefully prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officials and finally convinced the black administrators to let him read a compromised version of what he had written. In September of the same year, Wright registered for mathematics, English, and history courses at the new Lanier High School in Jackson, but had to stop attending classes after a few weeks of irregular attendance because he needed to earn money for family expenses. His childhood in Memphis and Mississippi shaped his lasting impressions of American racism.[2]

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