This Day in History: September 4th

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Literary great and thought provoker, Richard Nathaniel Wright, was born September 4, 1908, on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, near Natchez. His writings about his life and racism in America were credited with shifting the conversation around race in America at that time.

His grandparents were born into bondage. His grandfathers both fought for the North in the Civil War; his paternal grandfather escaped slavery and joined the U.S. Navy in 1865.

After his father, Nathan, left the family when Wright was 6, Wright’s mother, Ella, moved the family with relatives. His childhood was wrought with poverty and pain, which he chronicles in Black Boy.

He writes: “The glad days that dawned gave me liberty for the free play of impulse and, from anxiety and restraint, I leaped to license and thoughtless action. My mother arrived one afternoon with the news that we were going to live with her sister in Elaine, Arkansas, and that en route we would visit Granny, who had moved from Natchez to Jackson, Mississippi. As the words fell from my mother’s lips, a long and heavy anxiety lifted from me. Excited, I rushed about and gathered my ragged clothes. I was leaving the hated home, hunger, fear, leaving days that had been as dark and lonely as death.”

His grandparents were Seventh-Adventist, who demanded strict adherence to the word of God, forcing Wright to pray and forbidding Wright to work on Saturdays. His contention with his family’s rules made him hostile toward religion. At the age of 15, Wright’s “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” was published in the local Black newspaper Southern Register. Wright worked with the Federal Writers’ Project and received critical acclaim for Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of four stories.

By 1935, Wright had completed the manuscript of his first novel, Cesspool, which was published posthumously as Lawd Today in 1963. In 1937, he wrote more than 200 articles for the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, and helped edit the magazine New Challenge. That year he met and developed a friendship with Ralph Ellison.

In 1946, Wright moved to Paris in 1946 and became a permanent American expatriate. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, Wright continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa. He drew material from these trips for numerous nonfiction works.

While in France, he developed friendships with Chester Hines and James Baldwin. His relationship with Baldwin became contentious following the publication of Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he criticized Wright’s portrayal of Bigger Thomas as stereotypical in his ground-breaking book, Native Son, published in 1939.

Wright died in Paris on November 28, 1960, of a heart attack. Wright’s daughter, Julia, believes her father was murdered.

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