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Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Richard Wright | Biography


Early Life

Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in rural Mississippi. His father's absence and his mother's ill health meant Wright and his younger brother, Alan, spent most of their childhoods moving around the Deep South to live with various relatives.

Wright was a good student, but as early as age 10 he began working a series of odd jobs to help support the family. He finished ninth grade in May 1925 at the top of his class, but he left school shortly afterward to find steady work. Despite his formal education being cut short, Wright was a voracious reader and continued to study independently.

Becoming an Author

In 1927 Wright moved to the South Side of Chicago and worked briefly for the postal service. He became affiliated with the Communist Party in 1932, and between 1932 and 1937 he wrote and published poetry, stories, and essays in communist journals and mainstream publications. Communism is an authoritarian form of government where the government controls the means of economic production.

Wright's first book, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), helped establish his reputation as a voice for the poorest and most marginalized African American communities. He went on to publish many more books, essays, and poems, but he remains best known for the novel Native Son (1940) and the memoir Black Boy (1945). His work became associated with black existentialism, a literary movement focused on black empowerment. Black Boy provides an unflinching account of the author's violent childhood and youth in the Jim Crow South, where fear and racism dominated his existence. The term Jim Crow, derived from a minstrel singer, refers to laws that enforced segregation and discrimination. It also describes his young adulthood in Chicago, where racism continued to prevent him from achieving basic human dignity.

Later Life

Black Boy cemented respect for Richard Wright's in literary circles in the United States, but by the time of its publication, he had grown disenchanted with white America and moved to Paris, France. His later novels were heavily influenced by European existentialists, particularly French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who concerned themselves with the plight of the individual in a meaningless universe. He remained in France until his death on November 28, 1960, but throughout his life he continued to write novels examining race relations in the country he had left behind.

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