Author of two seminal contributions to Civil Rights–Era literature
Richard Wright’s fearless and unabashedly realistic portrayals of racial interaction made him one of twentieth-century America’s most preeminent writers. His 1940 novel Native Son received widespread critical acclaim, including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, and his memoir Black Boy was an instant best seller upon publication in 1945.1 The uncompromising narrative and challenging characters in these works broke new ground in American literature and paved the way for such subsequent writers as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison; today Black Boy and Native Son are required reading in many college and university courses.
Wright’s departure from the church is evident in his writings, most notably Black Boy; he recalls his grandmother’s attempts to “save” him: “Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen His creatures serve Him at first hand, I had had my doubts. My faith, as it was, was welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp, and nothing could ever shake this faith, and surely not my fear of an invisible power.”2 Wright’s deft portrayal of the alienated outsider speaks profoundly not only to the experience of racial segregation but to the atheist struggling to find a place amidst a community of believers.
Anne Rayson, “Richard Wright’s Life,” Modern American Poetry Site, Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, available at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/r_wright/wright_life.htm.
Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1998; originally published in 1945 by Harper & Brothers), 115.