Best Known For
Pioneering African-American writer Richard Wright is best known for the classic texts Black Boy and Native Son.
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African-American writer and poet Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi and published his first short story at the age of 16. Later, he found employment with the Federal Writers Project and received critical acclaim for Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four stories. He’s well known for the 1940 bestseller Native Son and his 1945 autobiography Black Boy. Wright died in Paris, France on November 28, 1960.
"Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread."
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi. The grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, Wright was largely raised by his mother, a caring woman who became a single parent after her husband left the family when Wright was five years old.
Schooled in Jackson, Mississippi, Wright only managed to get a ninth grade education, but he was a voracious reader and showed early on he had a gift with words. When he was 16, a short story of his was published in a southern African-American newspaper.
After leaving school, Wright worked a series of odd jobs. In his free time he delved into American literature, going so far as to forge a note so he could secure a library card.
The more he read about the world, the more he longed to see it and make a permanent break from the Jim Crow South. "I want my life to count for something," he told a friend.
In 1927, Wright finally left the South and moved to Chicago, where he worked at a post office and also swept streets. But like so many Americans struggling through the Depression, bouts of poverty settled into his life. Wright's frustration with American capitalism led him to join the Communist Party in 1932.
When he could, Wright continued to plow through books and write. He eventually joined the Federal Writers’ Project, and in 1937, with dreams of making it as a writer, he moved to New York City, where he was told he stood a better chance of getting published.
A year later, Wright published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four stories. The book proved to be a significant turning point in his career. The stories earned him a $500 prize from Story magazine and led to a 1939 Guggenheim Fellowship.
More acclaim followed in 1940 with the publication of the novel Native Son, which told the story of 20-year-old African-American male Bigger Thomas. The book brought Wright fame and freedom to write. It was a regular atop the bestseller lists and became the first book by an African-American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. A stage version (by Wright and Paul Green) followed in 1941, and Wright himself later played the title role in a film version made in Argentina.
In 1945,Wright published Black Boy, which offered a moving account of his childhood and youth in the South. It also depicts extreme poverty and his accounts of racial violence against blacks. The book greatly advanced Wright's reputation, but after living mainly in Mexico (1940–6), he had become so disillusioned with both the Communist Party and white America that he went off to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life as an expatriate.
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Many African-Americans left their country to escape the confines of racism, segregation and McCarthyism in the United States. As a result, an entirely new African-American subculture sprouted up in Europe, Africa and other countries abroad. A street in Paris is named after Josephine Baker, who found acceptance and fame in France that she couldn't achieve in the still-segregated United States. Marcus Garvey was a leader of the Back-to-Africa movement. And singer Nina Simone lived in several different countries, including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados before eventually settling down in the South of France. Find out more about these African-American expats, and the new lives they made for themselves abroad, on Biography.com.
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