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The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

by Juan Williams
Aug 18, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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African-American author Richard Wright had a very different upbringing from his daughter, Julia. In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright described the neighborhood he lived in as a child as swarming with "rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors and children."

"Smoke obscured the vision and cinders drifted into the house, into our beds, into our kitchens, into our food; and a tarlike smell was always in the air," he wrote.

Just a generation later, his daughter grew up in a very different world; in the late 1940s, Wright moved the family to Paris, where Julia would later attend the Sorbonne.

It was in Paris that Julia first encountered her father's famous autobiography. She was 12 at the time, and she found Black Boy on the shelf one evening when her parents were at the theater.

"I really didn't want to read it. I maybe would have preferred a mystery," she recalls. "Then I went into the kitchen and took some chocolate caramels and went to bed with Black Boy and the chocolate caramels."

Here's some of what she read: By the time Wright was 12, he'd set fire to his mother's home, been sent to an orphanage and been lured into a Memphis bar and plied with liquor.

"When I got to the end of Chapter 2 and I read that he only had an orange for Christmas and that he sucked it slowly to make it last, I spit the caramels out," says Julia.

Richard Wright's story of his childhood made him one of America's most popular writers in the 1940s. In addition to Black Boy, which he dedicated to then 3-year-old Julia, he also wrote Native Son, a fictional account of a black youth in the segregated North.

Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an uneducated black man from Chicago who unintentionally kills a young white woman. Bigger is a study in contrasts: Strong, ignorant and angry, he's also confused, vulnerable and at a loss about how to deal with a racist society. Wright's novel makes Bigger into America's native son — the offspring of a nation's bigotry.

Julia has spent this year — the centennial of Richard Wright's birth — talking about A Father's Law, the book her father was writing when he died. It's about the relationship between generations. But now, a hundred years after Wright's birth, it seems that his books aren't as widely read as they used to be.

"You would be surprised at how many students don't know who Richard Wright is," says Latashia Wansley Clark, a student at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wright's hometown of Natchez, Miss. To mark the centennial of his birth, the college produced a documentary about his life and work.

"Actually, I'm 32 years old and I didn't know who Richard Wright was before I started this documentary," Wansley Clark says.

"It changed my life," she says. "I read the book and now I read books all the time, because of the impact that it had on me. It's like you're there with [Wright] as he's going on his journey."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Watch a scene from the documentary, Richard Wright: Black Boy.

In this two-part series, we look at two writers — Richard Wright and Walter Dean Myers — who explored what it feels like to be African-American in the United States.

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Richard Wright, primary (Getty Images)

'Father's Law' a Reflection of Wright's Masterpieces

Jan 7, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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In 1940, Chicago-based author Richard Wright published a violent first novel called Native Son. It was a huge success, and he spent the next 20 years blazing trails for other African-American writers.

Wright died of a heart attack in Paris in the autumn of 1960, leaving behind an unfinished novel he called A Father's Law, about a police chief who suspects his son of several murders. That book will finally be published this week by Wright's daughter.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Watch a scene from the documentary, Richard Wright: Black Boy.

In this two-part series, we look at two writers — Richard Wright and Walter Dean Myers — who explored what it feels like to be African-American in the United States.

Read full story transcript

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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