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Centennial Salutes To The Birth, Growth And Development Of Richard Wright As A Writer

Arthur Smith
 


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I have for long been touched by the literary excellence of Black Boy of all Richard Wright's work which I have had a reading, teaching experience spanning almost thirty years. A period in which I have kept wondering as to what makes it such a wonderful representation of a writer and at the same time remain a lively, gripping, intriguing, and illuminating read almost throughout the pages. That this year is the Centennial of his birth which is being marked deservedly well with many literary events I thought that it could be the must needed catalyst to propel me into putting my thoughts, reflections and recollections of this ever-present Black Boy in print.

A celebration of the life and works of Richard Wright is significant and justified for me in Sierra Leone as his works both Black Boy and Native Son are taught and studied at all levels of our educational system from secondary school level upwards and have left an indelible impression on all who have read them. I have taught Black Boy for almost ten years from the teacher training college Milton Margai, to librarians in training at Fourah Bay College and I and my students have agreed it is a n irreplaceable gem - his style being a model for all as much as his stoicism and his unswerving pursuit of self-improvement in spite of all the forces pitted against him.

One of America's greatest African-American writers, Richard Wright was among the first Black writers to achieve literary fame and fortune. But this was mostly due to the superb quality of his work: his vivid descriptions of scenes, the sense of gradation in portrayal, psychological penetration of his characters at various stages of their growing up, especially so Black Boy, his capturing the traumas, pain and anxieties of growing up black in the southern states of America in the early twentieth century, his commitment .

Richard Nathaniel Wright, the grandson of a slave was born and spent the first years of his life on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi in September 4 1908. . His father, Nathaniel, was an illiterate sharecropper and his mother, Ella Wilson, was a well-educated school teacher. The family's extreme poverty forced them to move to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1913 when Richard was six years old. Although he spent only a few years of his life in Mississippi, those years would play a key role in two of his most recognized works: Native Son, a novel, and his autobiography, Black Boy.

Soon after moving, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to support them alone. His family moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with relatives. Wright's entire life was fraught with such continual moving from one town to another some sudden and staying with relatives, orphanages, cleavages with family members and teachers, fighting incessantly with bullies, white street gangs, as much as his constant fight against hunger, hypocrisy, parental neglect and the trauma of living in an household of multiple sick members and coping with the drudgery of Christian fundamentalism

So when in the spring of 1925 at the age of 15, Wright wrote his first story “The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre", and it was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper, he had little support and encouragement from his family For his grandmother had already conscripted everyone on her side against Richard's independent and creative spirit.

He had to develop a high level of motivation and daring , to go ahead. He forged notes with the signatures of whites in order to borrow books from the library for him to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for great literature

He graduated as valedictorian of his 9th grade class in May 1925, and enacted another act of daring defiance against authority by reading his own speech instead of the principals. . He left school a few weeks after entering High School. He worked at several menial jobs in Jackson and Memphis while continuing writing and discovering the works of the masters. In 1927 he moved northwards to Chicago where he joined the communist party. He wrote articles and stories for many leftist publications. He later became the leader of the John Reed club which was dominated by the Communist Party. During this time, he edited Left Front and contributed to New Masses Magazine.

In 1937, he moved to New-York and began work on a Writers Project guide book to the city entitled New York Panorama, and subsequently became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker. He gained national attention for his four short stories Uncle Tom's Children, which earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship Award; and, this award allowed him to complete his first novel Native Son in 1940which subsequently became the first book of the Book of the Month Club selection by an African American author.

He married Ellen Poplar in 1941, and they had two daughters, Julia and Rachel.

In 1944 he broke away from the Communist Party. After moving to Paris in 1946, and becoming a French citizen in 1947, he wrote The Outsider, Savage Holiday and Black Power. He traveled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. These became the subject for numerous non-fictional works that he wrote. In 1949 he contributed to the anti-communist anthology The God That Failed, and his essay was published in the Atlantic Monthly three years earlier.

In 1955, he visited Indonesia for the Bandung Conference, and his recorded observations were published in his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference.

His other works include White Man, Listen!, The Long Dream, and Eight Men; and a host of other publications.

He contracted amoebic dysentery on a visit to Africa, and over the next three years, his health deteriorated. His woes were intensified by his undergoing serious financial hardship.

He died in Paris in November, 1960, leaving an unfinished book A Father's Law which was published by his daughter , Julia. , in January 2008.

Richard Wright's most significant contribution is in accurately and vividly portraying blacks to white as well as black readers. Wright is essential reading to what it means to be a Black American and equally an American of whatever hyphenated ethnic background.

His eldest daughter Julia Wright a journalist and the literary executrix of Richard Wright's estate has edited the last of his books to be published: Haiku, A Father's Law, and Black Power. On the occasion of Richard Wright Centennial she sets the background:

arried Richard Wright on March 12 1941 and died on April 6 2004, aged 92. Forty four years after Richard. They are both buried in the French exile they chose, in Paris. Ellen was the Executrix of the Richard Wright Estate for long decades before her death, and was as well a literary agent in her own right (her “stable" included Simone de Beauvoir, Eldridge Cleaver, Violette Leduc, etc).

In the late seventies, I returned to Paris from my freelance journalism work in Africa to help my aging mother to shoulder the dialog of Richard Wright's paper sons and daughters with the world. As from 2004, I have been representing the Estate in her place, helped through my mourning by the thought of a birth, a century ago in 1908, in Natchez. And how to commemorate that birth internationally.

My personal gift to my father on his Birthday was to convince Harper Collins to publish his last unpublished draft, uncorrected and unsubmitted. Death literally prevented him from giving it the ending he would have wanted for it. It is called “A Father's Law" and will be published by Harper Collins on January 8th with a short introduction by me, describing how I found it and related to the conflict between the generations it depicts.

My second gift was to Richard Wright's readership, deprived for so long from his political non fiction written in exile at the height of the Cold War. These books, essentially a trilogy, Black Power, White man, listen!, The Color Curtain, had been allowed to fall out of print for reasons of poor sales - some claimed; for reasons of black listing others claimed.

Wherever the truth lies, it was my wish to give these later writings back to the public and again Harper Collins worked in agreement by issuing an omnibus containing all three works, due to hit the bookshops in February 2008.

Meanwhile, the idea of a preliminary series of Pre-Centennial Lectures and gatherings to plan Richard Wright events was born. The idea was to give autobiographical talks based on my own work in progress wherever interest in Richard Wright was strong and leave my hosts free to brainstorm and plan their own creative tributes to Richard Wright from Centennial Committees to Festivals to art and the creation of landmarks and encouragement of his ideas, from literacy to the unrelenting struggle against racism.

During 2006, I followed the trail of Pre-Centennial interest in him from Seattle to the University of Columbia, Missouri. . . . . In New Orleans, I spoke on the uncanny resemblance with Katrina, of the floods portrayed in “Uncle Tom's Children" and “Eight Men"" only to speak the following week in arid Arizona on campus but also in the community. I spoke at the University of Massachusetts and a few days ago at the University of Temple and at the University of Pennsylvania , the guest of Professor Joyce Anne Joyce, one of the first outstanding Richard Wright scholars. . . .

Each time I left to go home to exile, Paris, and to my memoir. Meanwhile, Professor Jerry Ward was sparking off Richard Wright Reading Circles which became a household word throughout the South. And feisty, driven women like Professor Maryemma Graham and Dr. Colia Clark traced a network of revival throughout the land.

And so 2008 looms with from February 20 to 24 in Natchez, The Natchez Literary and Film Festival totally dedicated to Richard Wright, March 28-March 30 : I will be speaking on the theme of Transmission and Resistance at the Conference of Black Writers at Medgar Evers College, . March 29 (4:30 p. m. ) takes us to the Schomburg Center in Harlem where we will be hosted by the Organization of American Historians, Howard Dodson and Professor Maryemma Graham on a panel of historians discussing : Richard Wright at 100 : looking backward and forward

April 13th 2008 : Richard Wright day at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This will be a day long commemoration where I share the keynote with my longstanding friend, Pr. Jerry Ward.

April 20th to 27th is Richard Wright Week in Philadelphia

June 19 and 20: American University of Paris, an international seminar on Richard Wright

June 28th : a seminar on Richard Wright in Hiroshima, Japan, sponsored by the Japanese Black Studies Association.

September 4 to 12 2008 : Jackson Mississippi Richard Wright week at various venues October 1st 2008 : I will be giving the first DuBois Institute lecture in Harvard .

These are but a few early examples of venues, with others being planned in Jackson and Memphis, spilling over into 2010. 2010 being the commemoration of my father's premature death in 1960.

Everybody has internalized his or her Richard Wright. That is how it should be. If, as his elder daughter, I had a personal emphasis to put I would say that though the elites of Academia have claimed him and indeed deconstructed and post-deconstructed him, he belongs in the end to the community. Bigger was electrocuted by the State, x-rayed by showpiece Academia, given care and attention where academics can be most generous - and yet, elusive still he is alive and kicking out there seeking answers to questions that are being asked manifold"

Julia Wright

Paris Dec 18th 2007

Through his writing Richard Wright not only captured his experiences as well as those of other blacks in the written word, but the written word became a weapon that he used to destroy ignorance, racism, economic violence and classicism. He challenged commonly held stereotypes and notions of inferiority, defining black people as full characters free to act upon the stage of human history as ordinary human beings. The subjects and issues that jis characters struggled with represented the worst of human experience: poverty, illiteracy, violence, race, abandonment, the fatherless child, hunger, capitalism, racism, colonialism and war. Wright's thoughts are derived from the political and social fabric of his time reflecting contributions of great men like W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963) and Paul Robeson (1878-1971) and in turn passed a legacy of social consciousness in literature and influenced the civil rights and liberation struggles of the second half of the twentieth century, including people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and Malcolm X (1928-1965).

He is renowned for his novel, Black Boy published in 1945 covering his youth in the segregated South and American Hunger, which was intended as the second book of Black Boybut was published posthumously and covering his joining , membership and eventual disillusionment with the Communist Party . Both autobiographical works inform many of the biographical studies of Wright's life and career.

Arthur Smith was born and was schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has taught English since 1977 at Prince of Wales School and, Milton Margai College of Education. He is now a Senior Lecturer at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing English language and Literature for the past eight years.

Mr Smith's writings have been appearing in local newspapers as well as in various international media like West Africa Magazine, Index on Censorship, Focus on Library and Information Work. He was one of 17 international visitors who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U. S. State Department in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at lisnews.org

His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book’ He holds a PhD and a professorship in English from the National Open University, Republic of Benin.

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