Richard Wright was a product of the deep South and his writings and world view reflect his experiences as a black person living in a racist environment where it was assumed people of his race were inferior and not entitled to all the freedoms white Americans enjoy. Wright was born in 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi. His parents were born free after the Civil War while both sets of grandparents were born into slavery, but gained freedom by participating for the North in the War. Wright's father left the family when the boy was only six years old. Wright would not see his father for twenty-five years. When he finally saw him again he wrote that he had nothing in common with him other than blood. His father was then a sharecropper who was worn down by poverty and the racism of the time. In 1916, Wright's mother took him and his younger brother to Arkansas to live with her sister and husband. They were forced to move when his uncle by marriage disappeared--reportedly killed by a while man who wanted his successful saloon. This was Wright's first experience with violence and the dark side of human nature. Wright's family suffered another setback when his mother suffered a serious stroke. After living with an uncle, the small fatherless family moved to the home of his maternal grandmother. Wright was finally able to attend school on a regular basis. He eventually graduated as the valedictorian of his junior high school. While he registered for classes at an all black high school, he had to drop out in order to work. In 1925, on his own, Wright went to Memphis. His mother and brother joined him a year later. Soon thereafter, disgusted with the Jim Crow South, he and his family moved to Chicago. Wright's early experiences with violence and racism would forever shape his writing and worldview.
Wright's move to Chicago in 1927 was at first beneficial. He found a job with the Post Office but lost it in 1931. He had to go on relief in order to make ends meet. He was drawn towards communisim and in 1933 joined the Communist Party He wrote for "The New Masses. At first, his experiences with fellow communists proved positive, but later they turned sour and in 1937 he moved to New York where he made ties with communists living there. Important for his development as a writer he made friends with Ralph Ellison and won a monetary prize for an early short story. In 1938, he gained national recogntion for a collection of four short stories. The royalties from this collection enabled him to work on 'Native Son." A Guggenheim Fellowship greatly helped him support himself while he worked on his novel. The book was a huge success and his main character, Bigger Thomas, was seen as a person shaped by racism and the limitations of a society that viewed blacks as inferior. The book's violence was shocking to many readers but it was an integral part of the story. The decade of the 1940's was a busy time for Wright. He won a prestigious award from the NAACP, collaborated with a playwright on a dramatic adaptation of "Native Son" ( to very favorable reviews) and wrote the text to a volume of photographs of African-American life ( "Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States." "Black Boy". a semi-autobiographical novel, was published in 1945. It is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand how certain experiences shaped Wright's character and beliefs.
In 1946, Wright moved to Paris with his family. He would never return to the United States. He became a French citizen in 1947. He traveled and wrote about Africa. He continued to write thoughout the 1950's. His happy times in Paris were marred by quarrels started by enemies of expatriate black writers., depression, lonliness and marital discord. Despite illness, he continued to write and lecture. Because of amoebic dysentery contracted in Africa in 1957, Wright's health declined over the last three years of his life. He died in Paris in 1960 of a massive heart attack. He was only 52 years old. He is buried in a cemetery in Paris.