Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908 on a farm in Mississippi, the first of two sons born to Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher. When Wright was a small child, his father abandoned the family to live with another woman. After this, Wright’s mother was frequently sick, and he and his brother shuffled between various relatives. During one particularly tumultuous time, Wright and his brother spent a month in an orphanage.
Wright worked a variety of jobs throughout his childhood and adolescence. His mother’s illnesses were a financial drain on his extended family, often forcing Wright to work rather than go to school. Nevertheless, despite his sporadic schooling, Wright became an avid reader. Shortly before the beginning of the Depression, the family moved to Chicago, where Wright began to seriously devote himself to writing. He joined the Federal Writer’s Project and started to publish his work.
In 1932, Wright became a member of the Communist Party. He wrote for Communist publications and met several famous writers through his affiliation with the Party. Wright later moved to New York to be the editor for The Daily Worker, a Communist publication. Around this time, Wright wrote and published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories that deals with the social realities faced by American black men. The novel (like its namesake, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was banned or censored in parts of the United States.
However, it was Wright’s novel, Native Son, that stirred up real controversy by shocking the sensibilities of both black and white America. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, hails from the lowest rung of society, and Wright does not infuse him with any of the romantic elements common to literary heroes. In effect, Bigger is what one might expect him to be given the social conditions in which he lives: he is sullen, frightened, violent, hateful, and resentful.
Wright wrote Native Son to draw attention to what he thought was a serious problem in American society. He had witnessed a peculiar social phenomenon–there was a distinct pattern of “Biggers” in the United States. Wright realized that this did not apply to black men only–that in general many men, when confronted with an impossibly narrow avenue to a human life, become, like Bigger, disasters waiting to happen. Wright believed that the structure of American society itself was the direct cause. Native Son is an urgent warning that the American social structure must change before the needy, oppressed, and restricted masses rise up in fury against those in power.
In the late 1940’s, Wright moved with his wife and daughter to Paris, where Wright became interested in existentialism. He often socialized with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and began corresponding with Franz Fanon in the 1950s. However, his writing career never again reached the peak it had when he published Native Son and Black Boy, his autobiography. Wright died of a heart attack in 1960.