Native Son By Right The Childhood, Education and Achievements of Richard Wright Richard Wright was the son of an illiterate sharecropper. He was brought up in a dysfunctional home where he suffered poverty and abandonment. He became an essential figure in the development of African American literature, and has been called one of the most powerful writers of the twentieth century. Although Richard Wright experienced a poverty-stricken childhood, he managed to gain a partial education and finally, achieved recognition as a great protest writer. Richard Wright suffered a poverty-stricken childhood.
His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked as a sharecropper until Wright was three, when the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Wright and his younger brother hungered for affection, understanding, and attention, as well as for food. They would comb their neighborhood begging for food and money to help his family survive. Wright was also forced to steal in order to eat. Critics say that Wrights behavior was as a result of his fathers abandonment. At the age of five or six, Richards father deserted the family, making them victims of extreme poverty.
Soon after, his mother suffered paralytic strokes that left her dependant on her own mother. She was forced to put Richard and his brother into an orphanage. After being sexually molested in the orphanage, Richard ran away but he eventually had to return until his mother returned for them. His mothers illness added more stress to his tumultuous childhood because he was forced to discontinue his education at a premature age and work to help his family survive. Richard worked many odd jobs in places that were unsuitable for a child his age.
He worked in saloons, brothels, and even as a scavenger. His jobs in the South were marked by harassment by whites and his own disdain for what segregation and racism had done to his family. He felt that his family was forced to accept poverty. He resolved to migrate to the North, to Chicago in 1927 at the age of nineteen and found a job as a postal clerk. This was his third move in nineteen years (Wertham 321-325). He went to live at his uncles house and it was there that he had his first encounter with racial hatred and violence. He witnessed the murder of his uncle by a group of white men trying to seize his property.
Fearing for their lives, they had no choice but to move again. Richard was sent to his grandmothers home in Jackson at the age of eight. His grandmother was a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a stern disciplinarian who according to Arnold Rampersad, tried to crush Wrights childhood interest in the world of imagination. Eventually, Richard left his grandmothers home and continued shuttling between relatives (Rampersad 11). Richard was unable to complete his education.
It is very uncharacteristic for someone with such little formal education to become such a renowned writer, but Richard Wright was an exception to the rule. Despite not finishing high school, Richard decided that he would educate himself. He would go to the library and forge a white persons name in order to get books out. He read constantly in his spare time while he continued to work to help take care of his ailing mother. When Richards came out of the orphanage, he had to adopt the position as provider and caretaker of his mother and little brother. Richard resented his mother putting him into an orphanage and in his eyes she became an embodiment of passivity and victimization.
The only thing that kept Richard happy was the long hours he spent reading the books that he illegally took out of the library. As provider for his family, Richards responsibilities were overwhelming, and even though he was only a boy he still did what he had to do for his family (Margolies 65-86). According to Richards classmates at Jacksons Smith-Robertson School, he always had his head in a book. It seems fitting that after he was forced to leave high school, he continued to educate himself. He resolved to migrate to the north, to Chicago in 1927 at the age of nineteen and found a job as a postal clerk. At this period he also became interested in communism and joined the Communist Party.
He was also encouraged to write from the Communist Party. He seemed to have inbred literary skills despite of his lack of schooling. Writing became Richards passion and it was something he still continued to do even after he left the Party (Clark 12-15). It was stated that Richard Wright developed his fascination with the power of words at an early age. He was one of those boys who did not have to push themselves to do well in school; reading and writing seemed to come naturally to him. He was a constant student throughout his school years, and he always earned good grades and good reports from his teachers and his peers.
In the ninth grade he graduated class valedictorian and obviously he wrote his own speech. Richard Wright became a renowned protest writer. He changed the face of American literature with works such as Black Boy, his autobiography, and Native Son. His work chronicles both the cruelties of racial attitudes among whites and what Wright calls the “negative confusions” of the black community. By the time of his sudden death in 1960 at the age of 52, Wright had irrevocably changed the principles governing African American writing and left an indelible mark on the American imagination (Kinnamon 118-152).
Wrights earliest writings came at the age of fifteen when he published a short story in the local newspaper. His family did not support his writing because they believed it to be satanic. Wright was not thwarted by their reaction and he went on to write other short stories and poetry. It is said that write was a poet before he became a writer. He left Chicago in 1937 for New York where “he could get published,” according to Margaret Walker Alexander.
His autobiography, Black Boy, was published in 1945. The work was acclaimed by a number of noted individuals, and by March that year, Black Boy had sold over four hundred thousand copies. Black Boy became a runaway best seller, aided by a major photo spread in Life magazine. When asked why he wrote Black Boy, a harrowing account of his Southern childhood, Wright replied that he wanted to give “tongue to voiceless Negro Boys” (Clark 12-15). However, it was Native Son (published in 1940) that won Wright critical and public acclaim. The book sold over two hundred thousand copies in less than a month and soared to the top of the best sellers list.
It became the first book by an African American author to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Wright was being compared to famous writers such as Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck. He received the Springarn Medal in the early 1940s after which he began to write the autobiographical account of his childhood. Wright changed the principles governing African-American writing. His books, Native Son and Black Boy, continue to be used in high school and colleges throughout America.
He has influenced many upcoming writers, as well as many upcoming African-Americans. Bibliography Clarke, John. “Richard Wright- Black Boy.” Independent Television Service (ITVS). Online, Internet. 4 Feb. 2000.
Wertham, Frederic. Psychoanalysis and Literature. New York: Dutlon, 1964. Margolies, Edward. A Critical Study of 20th Century Negro American Authors.
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968. Kinnamon, Keneth. A Study in Literature and Society. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1972. 118-152.