Richard Wright died on 28 November 1960. The Afro-American writer paved the way for future writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison and prepared the ground for the civil rights movement. Both his memoirs Black Boy and Native Son were instant bestsellers and changed the literary scene in the US over night.
Wright's autobiography Black Boy seems to be the very antithesis of Benjamin Franklin's American optimism. Like Franklin, Wright was a self made man, both had little formal schooling, both were journalists and both were gifted thinkers. Whilst Franklin became the founding father of America Wright was abandoned by his father. By the age of six he was stumbling from saloon to saloon begging for a drink. He lived and itinerant life moving from slum to slum experiencing murder, religious zealotry, child abuse and gnawing hunger.
It is from this misery that Wright emerges as the father of America's underbelly writing of it with unflinching honesty. Wright's experiences made him understand profoundly the psychology of the oppressed and how they are the products of their societies. In many ways he shared many of the insights that his contemporary intellectual Franz Fanon did. Wright's response to American racism was to leave for Paris; Fanon's response to French racism was to embrace the Algerian resistance.
Both thinkers understood how an unjust society breeds violence and hatred. Wright's protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is one such example. The author is unapologetic in his depiction of Bigger Thomas, a thug, a hater, a young man who is unable to have meaningful relationships with his family or his girlfriend. He is a true son of the slums. Somehow Bigger Thomas becomes the chauffeur for a wealthy slum landlord who donates to black charities whilst collecting the rent from Bigger's family. When Bigger accidentally kills the businessman's daughter, Mary, and tries to pin the blame on her communist boyfriend, Jan, Wright shows the savagery of his own country. He reveals the stark difference between the treatment of the two men; Bigger is hunted through the city as if he's about to get lynched. Once caught, he is not granted the compassion to repent and reflect but the kangaroo court sentences him to death. It is Bigger Thomas' Jewish lawyer, Max who points his accusing finger at American society for creating offspring like him.
Now that there is a black president in the White House and a plethora of talented black authors from Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ben Okri to Chinua Achebe perhaps Wright's message seems less relevant. Arguably, it is in times such as ours that Wright's work seems even more pertinent. For his work allows us to comprehend the root causes of rage and injustice not just in the US, but all around the globe.
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