The child of the fundamentalist South with an eighth-grade education, a self-taught intellectual in the working-class Communist Party of the 1930s, a black man married to a white woman, and an expatriate in France after World War II, Richard Wright was always an outsider. He went well beyond the limits of the times in which he lived, and sought to reconcile opposing cultures in his work.
“How the hell did you happen?” the Chicago sociologist Robert Park once asked Wright. In Richard Wright: His Life and Times, biographer Hazel Rowley shows how, chronicling with the dramatic drive of a novel Wright’s extraordinary journey from a sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi to international renown as a writer, fiercely independent thinker, and outspoken critic of racism.
In his Christian Science Monitor review, award-winning writer and cultural critic Gerald Early said of Richard Wright: His Life and Times, “Wonderfully readable and fair to the subject…this is a first-rate biography worthy of its towering, larger-than-life subject.”
In an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Ms. Rowley presents a very interesting portrait of this courageous American artist.
“Writing is my way of being a free man.”
– Richard Wright
“Richard Wright paid tribute to his hero, Joe Louis, with the lyrics of a blues song, ‘King Joe.’ Count Basie wrote the music, and Paul Robeson, for the first time in his life, sang the blues. Wright was proud of their collaboration. Recorded by John Hammond on the Okeh label, ‘King Joe’ was for sale in mid-November (1941), released on two sides of a ten-inch 78 RPM record. The New York Times critic thought it ‘mighty good’ jazz. The New Masses declared it ‘swell to dance to.’ By mid-January, forty thousand records had been sold.”
– Hazel Rowley, from Richard Wright, The Life and Times
JJM Why did you choose to do a biography on Richard Wright?
HR It’s an interesting question to ask biographers, isn’t it? Why choose to spend four or five years obsessively delving into the life of a particular person? For me, writing is a quest. It’s about opening new doors, expanding my horizons. I don’t write a book because I already know a lot about a subject. I write a book because I want to know about that subject. The starting point is curiosity, passionate interest — and a whole lot of hubris. I might add that the hubris aspect has me shaking with terror from day one. I often wonder why I put myself through all this anguish.
Why did I choose Wright? I mean, hell, I’m white! I was brought up in England and Australia! But there is, in fact, a continuity with my previous work, though it isn’t obvious at first sight. I wrote a doctoral thesis on Simone de Beauvoir, and she and Wright were good friends. It was because of Beauvoir’s interest in his work that I read Native Son and Black Boy, and I was bowled over. Then I wrote a biography of the Australian expatriate writer, Christina Stead, and in the late 1930s, when she and her American husband were living in New York, Wright used to call in at their apartment and talk politics. Richard Wright has been looming in the background of my research for the past three decades.
But the actual trigger came about in Austin, Texas. I was there in 1994, on sabbatical leave from my university in Melbourne, Australia. For my biography of Christina Stead, I had spent several months in the US doing research, mostly in New York. I knew something about racism and the residential segregation of American cities. Nevertheless I had to some extent swallowed the myth that America is a gigantic melting pot. It looks that way on the surface, especially on the streets and in the subways of NYC. Coming from an Australia which still today is largely white (mostly because of its ignominious “White Australia” policy, intact until the early 1970s), I found the racial diversity in this country exhilarating.
During those six months in Texas, I discovered American apartheid. I saw very clearly the lines – visible and invisible — that demarcate racial groups in this country. The city of Austin is divided in half by the I-35, and I saw that one half is black and Hispanic and the other half white. I saw that poverty and police abuse had a great deal to do with skin color. I saw that even in educated circles – perhaps especially in educated circles – black people and white people rarely had dinner at each other’s houses. I came to see race relations as the most important, the most urgent, and the most bewildering issue in the United States.
At a party one evening, a young black man told me that Richard Wright’s writing had changed his life. And then, you know how serendipity works. The next day, I was browsing in a bookstore when some colorful book covers caught my eye. They happened to be a series of Wright books, just reprinted. The previous evening’s conversation came back to me, didn’t it. I bought two or three books and read them. Wright, I don’t need to tell you, packs a punch. I was, well, I was bowled over — just like I had been in my twenties.
When I find myself absorbed by a book, it doesn’t take me long before I’m wanting to know more about the writer. I remember hurrying through the heat to the University of Texas library. I was tremendously impressed by a collection of interviews with Wright. I read several biographies of Wright. And I found myself wanting to know more. The insane idea occurred to me that I’d like to explore this man’s life closely, to write about him. The best biographies of him were thirty years old. I kept leaping up from my chair and pacing up and down. Did I dare? Was I crazy?
To get back to the angst factor, I must tell you that from the beginning my 5-year Richard Wright journey has been as anxious as it has been exhilarating. I was well aware of the hazards with this project and in the early stages felt very daunted by them. Would I, as a white woman from Australia, ever be able to understand, let alone convey, the experience of a black man in America? There was the issue of “legitimacy.” I struggled with the feeling that I didn’t belong behind that high invisible fence that separates black and white America; I shouldn’t be trespassing in black territory. For a couple of months I chickened out altogether. But then I felt like a coward. Richard Wright hadn’t given in, had he? His whole life was about courage, daring, and determination. He had always grappled with the sense that he was an interloper in territory meant only for whites.
JJM Richard Wright grew up in Mississippi, raised in a family that valued strong religious faith over education. What educational experience led Wright to understand he had abilities as a writer?
HR This remains an absolute mystery to me. His only serious formal schooling was from the ages of ten to sixteen. It was of course a Negro school, as they called it, in Jackson. The teachers were very committed, and Wright and his friends took their schooling seriously, but they didn’t study literature in school, and the students scarcely knew of the existence of African-American writers. At home, Wright’s Seventh Day Adventist grandmother ruled the roost. She considered any book other than the Bible to be “devil’s work,” and if young Richard smuggled a book home and she discovered it under his pillow, he’d find the remains in the kitchen furnace. And it was in this environment that Wright had his first story published in the Jackson Negro newspaper, at the age of sixteen!
JJM As a result of your research, were you able to learn more about Wright’s youth than what he wrote of in his autobiography, Black Boy? If so, what is an example?
HR Black Boy, I discovered, is a very incomplete autobiography, and Wright never really intended it to be one. What I learned, both from letters and from passages he cut from earlier drafts, was that he also had good times in his adolescence, and he had warm friendships. His aim in Black Boy was not so much to tell the story of his life as to show what it was like to endure the daily humiliation of racism in the segregated South. He left out the good things that happened to him. That wasn’t the point of the story.
JJM Who was Wright’s black role model?
HR As far as I could see, there was no one person, and that was part of his extreme alienation in the South. Nearly all the black people he met knuckled under in some way, in an effort to survive white supremacy. He admired the few daring young black “hoodlums” he encountered who, with knives or their fists, rebelled against the savagery of segregation in the South. These young men would be the models for Bigger Thomas, in his novel Native Son. Like Bigger Thomas, they nearly all ended up behind bars or in the electric chair, so they were not exactly viable role models.
JJM How did the work of H. L. Mencken challenge him to “convey the daily reality of being black in America?”
HR H.L.Mencken was a highly iconoclastic Baltimore journalist who railed, with great verve and panache, against the very things Wright most hated – life in the South, American Puritanism, hypocrisy, and so on. Wright was 17 or 18 when he read him, and for the first time, he saw words being used as weapons. He realized he wanted to do the same. The other thing about Mencken was that he was a great champion of that controversial movement called “Realism.” With his habitually scathing wit, Mencken argued that most American literature to that point had merely been prudish romanticizing, blighted by Puritanism. He wanted writers to depict life like it really was. So Mencken pretty much threw down the gauntlet to Wright. It was Mencken, more than any other single writer, who helped Wright understand what he wanted to do.
JJM Late in his life, Wright said that nothing in his life was as difficult or traumatic as his journey from the South to the North, from Mississippi to Chicago. Why?
HR It’s an astounding comment to make, isn’t it. He said that to an interviewer on French radio in the last year of his life. Wright was the first bestselling black writer; he was the first black man to buy a house in Greenwich Village; he was the first African-American writer to leave for Paris after W.W. II.; he was the first black American writer to star in a movie based on his own novel. And what does he say was the most frightening thing he did? That journey to the North, which 12 million other Southern blacks also made! It makes you realize just how gigantic a leap that journey was. In the course of a train trip, you left behind semifeudal conditions and the terror of segregation in the rural South, only to be faced by the terror of modern industrial capitalism and a different kind of racism in the North.
JJM What caused him to reach out to the communist party?
HR It was the early 1930s, and Chicago’s South Side was worse hit than most places by the Great Depression. In Europe, fascism was on the rise. The communist party was pro-worker, anti-fascism, and it was actively fighting race issues. Above all, the party was the only place in the United States where blacks and whites mixed on an equal footing.
JJM How did his involvement with the party affect his art?
HR It needs to be said that Wright was at first extremely wary of the party. What he joined was the John Reed Club. This was a club, with branches all around the nation, for “proletarian” artists and writers. It was sponsored by the communist party, and Wright knew that. After his experience with religion in the South, he was hugely wary of proselytizing. But club members assured him that he would not have to be a member of the Party to join up. Many of the club members were not in the party.
In the John Reed Club, for the first time in his life, Wright met fellow writers. He met people who wanted to discuss writing strategies. On Saturday nights, the club had a speaker, often someone famous. In many ways, the John Reed Club was Wright’s university.
JJM What alienated Wright about the communist party?
HR Well, eventually Wright was pressured to join the party, and since by then the John Reed Club meant everything to him, he became a party member. That was 1932. He was impressed by many things about the party, but from the beginning he chafed against the group decisionmaking. He believed in individual freedom; he did not easily submit to the authority of a group. Increasingly, he discovered that things happened in the party because the word had come, behind the scenes, from Moscow.
Later, in 1940, he didn’t appreciate the way some members of the party took him to task for Native Son. They complained that his picture of communists wasn’t rosy enough; his black protagonist wasn’t heroic enough.
He officially left the party in 1944. After America joined W.W. II., Wright was increasingly uncomfortable with the party line. He found it humiliating and insulting that the armed forces were segregated. Even the Red Cross blood banks were segregated – as if there were any difference between black blood and white blood! The black press expressed outrage, but the communist party toed the line completely during the war. Civil rights issues were put on hold. The party expected its black members to rally forth, wave the flag, and sign up to fight just as eagerly as whites. Wright quit the party in disgust.
JJM What were the circumstances that led to his decision to leave Chicago for New York?
HR Several of his friends had left for New York. Publishing houses were in New York. Harlem was the capital of black culture in the U.S. Wright wanted to stretch his horizons.
JJM A goal of Wright’s was to present a “realistic depiction of life through the sharp focus of social consciousness.” The Book-of-the-Month Club played major roles in the release of Wright’s two major literary achievements, Native Son and Black Boy. Given Wright’s strong desire to display the protagonist’s anger in each story, does it surprise you that he would essentially allow a white literary organization like Book-of-the-Month Club access to editing his story? Did their editing change the essence of Bigger Thomas in a way Wright found less authentic?
HR I think the Book-of-the-Month Club episodes one of the most fascinating stories in my book. The fact is, if Wright became the first bestselling black writer in the US, it was because he was promoted by the Book-of-the-Month Club. In each case, with Native Son and with Black Boy, the Book-of-the Month Club judges asked for some changes. Wright put up a fight, but eventually, yes, he submitted.
You know, personally, I don’t see him as selling out. The story is too complicated to tell here. But it wasn’t for nothing that in the last speech he ever gave, in the American Church in Paris in 1960, Wright said: “All Negro artists or intellectuals have in them an inevitable streak of cynicism. We know that our artistic projections cannot be sold or favorably regarded if they clash too violently with the prevailing white norms of the society in which we live.”
JJM You say that Wright wanted to show that youths like Bigger were not inherently bad, that their intense frustration, hatred, and their crimes were as a result of being shut out of American society. Was he successful with this?
HR I think he was. But it remains one of the many controversies swirling around Wright. Some see him as airing dirty laundry, reinforcing negative stereotypes of blacks.
JJM During the peak of Wright’s career, Native Son was adapted for the stage by Orson Welles and John Houseman. Was its run on stage considered an artistic success?
HR It was a heady combination: Richard Wright as writer, Orson Welles as director, and Canada Lee in the role of Bigger Thomas. The play was redhot, experimental, exciting. Above all, it was daring. It was breaking new ground. An interracial cast was almost unheard of on Broadway, not to mention interracial kissing. The early reviews were full of praise. Sadly, interest in the play petered out sooner than they hoped. It ran for fifteen weeks, but lost money.
JJM In 1963, Irving Howe wrote, “The day Native Sonappeared, American culture was changed forever.” How did the culture change?
HR It was the first time an African-American writer wrote with such brutal honesty about the effects of racism. Wright didn’t pander to white readers. He certainly pushed back the horizons as far as subject matter was concerned. He opened doors for black writers. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Chester Himes: all said how much they owed Wright.
JJM A component of Wright’s character I find pretty fascinating is his relationship with and view of women. At a very early age, you say that Wright learned that women by themselves were weak and afraid. He described black women as “the most circumscribed and tragic objects to be found in our lives.” What shaped such an opinion? Since he had this view of black women, and because he was married to a white woman, how did black women view Wright?
HR Well, you’ve hit upon another of the controversies that swirl around Wright. The black community has never quite forgiven him for marrying a white woman. Worse, the way he depicts black women in his fiction is not exactly flattering.
But my role, as his biographer, is to try to understand why he was like he was. We have to remember that until he was 30, this highly intelligent, talented, rebellious young man was living in incredibly crowded conditions – sometimes the same room – as his mother and aunts and grandmother. You have to remember that these were highly religious, semi-literate, simple Southern women, who deplored the fact that he had never “found God,” and who considered his reading and writing a selfish waste of precious electricity.
When he made that comment about black women, he was talking about his mother’s generation. He could see they were doubly exploited, both as blacks and as women. In many places – unfortunately mostly in his unpublished works – he shows a deep sympathy and respect for black women.
He proposed to two black women before he married Ellen Wright. In Argentina, he had a passionate affair with a black woman. But in the communist party he mostly met Jewish women. And in the area of marriage, as in every other area, Wright resented being told what he should do.
JJM Wright once said of his family life with his wife Ellen and children, “It works; there’s peace and love in our home.” Yet, his family life seemed one of utter deceit. What was his view of love and marriage?
HR It’s true that in his fiction Wright portrays marriage as something of a trap for black men, who then found themselves supporting a wife and children. But this doesn’t seem to me an outrageous view for an aspiring writer to hold. The reality was that black men were discriminated against in the workforce, earning far less than their white counterparts. If they had a family to support, it was incredibly difficult.
Wright certainly believed in love, but as it turned out, he wasn’t good at trust and intimacy. He knew that. He also knew that he wasn’t an ideal husband and father. But again, we need to look where he came from. We need to look at his childhood, his fear that his mother would die, his grandmother’s tyranny, his life as a black man in America.
JJM How did Wright meet Ralph Ellison?
HR Langston Hughes introduced them. It was soon after Wright arrived in New York in 1937.
JJM Ralph Ellison was among the first to read Native Son, as it came out of the typewriter. What was his opinion of the work?
HR He loved it. He was in awe of Wright’s talent and daring. “He had the kind of confidence that jazzmen have,” he said later about Wright. Ellison was also grateful for Wright’s encouragement. It was because of Wright that Ellison gave up his ambitions to become a musician and turned instead to writing.
JJM For a while, Wright served as Ellison’s mentor. How did they grow apart?
HR There were moments of rivalry – both to do with writing and with women. But I think the main reason was that Wright left the country.
JJM Are the letters between Wright and Ellison published?
HR No. I hope they will be one day.
JJM Was racial tension in America primary in Wright’s decision to move to Paris?
HR Yes, absolutely. Being a famous writer didn’t change the color of his skin. Although he had plenty of money, it was absurdly difficult for him to buy a house in Greenwich Village. If he was having lunch with his agent or publisher, they either had to eat in Chinatown or Harlem or risk going to a restaurant and being asked to leave. Taxis didn’t stop for him. If he walked into a hotel foyer to meet a white friend, everyone would freeze and stare at him. If he used the hotel elevator, there would be complaints. When he walked in Greenwich Village with his wife, they were harassed. When Ellen went out with their daughter, they were followed by taunts. It never stopped, never stopped. He was tired of being worn down by it all. And he worried about his kids.
JJM What achievement of the last ten years of his life would you say was his most significant contribution to the culture?
HR In the 1950s, Wright was famous in Europe, but largely forgotten in the US. Still today, he remains far better known for his early work, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son and Black Boy. The decline of his reputation had a lot to do with the Cold War, and the discomfort of the American government toward anyone who said anything critical about this country. Wright had long since left the communist party, so that wasn’t the problem, but he remained an outspoken critic of American racism. Not only was the State Department wary of him; so were American publishers and American readers.
Personally, I think his late work every bit as good as his early work. I love the stories in Eight Men. I like his novel The Long Dream, set in Mississippi. His nonfiction books, Black Power (about his trip to Ghana) and Pagan Spain (about his trip to Franco’s Spain) make wonderful reading. They also strike me as decades ahead of their time.
JJM What is Richard Wright’s legacy?
HR I think it’s huge, and yet he’s one more neglected black figure. Like Paul Robeson, whom young people have often never heard of. Like W.E.B. Du Bois. I don’t know how it happens that great black figures somehow get buried under a scraggly tree in the desert. Especially if they were critical voices, which most great black figures have been.
Somehow they become marginalized, and therefore silenced. In Wright’s case you constantly hear that he left the country and so lost touch with his roots. I saw no evidence of this at all! On the contrary, from his vantage point in Paris, Wright saw America more clearly than many Americans did in the 1950s.
The other thing you hear is that Wright “sold out.” David Bradley, for example, an African American writer, believes that Native Son was pandering to white expectations. He writes: “I myself did not want a nut like Bigger Thomas sitting next to me on a bus or in a schoolroom, and certainly I did not want him moving in next door.”
It’s true that Wright wasn’t a “race man” like Langston Hughes. In the interest of showing that people are scarred by daily humiliations, fear of lynching, lack of opportunity, poverty, ghetto life, and overt discrimination, Wright did not paint a pretty picture of life in the black community. But this is all the more reason to discuss him in schools. Why does our thinking have to be so polarized in this country?
by Hazel Rowley
About Hazel Rowley
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
HR Pippi Longstocking. I’m quite serious. Ok, she’s a fictional character, but the effect she had on me was real. The Pippi books make exhilarating reading for young girls. You know that whatever happens to her, Pippi will always come out on top.
Pippi is 9 and lives with her monkey and horse in an old house with an overgrown garden. Her mother died. Her father’s a sea captain, who comes back every so often and gives her another trunk full of gold coins. Pippi is carrot-haired and freckle-nosed; she wears one brown stocking and one black stocking and huge men’s shoes. (She likes to be able to wriggle her toes.) She’s so strong she can lift her horse, so you can imagine how she deals with interfering police officers, or boys who bully people. She goes to school one day, but she finds all that “pluttifikation” stuff quite absurd, and never goes back. Congenitally incapable of submitting to authority, she’s funloving, warm, heroically generous, and brave.
I’ve given Pippi books to dozens of little girls. I don’t really know what the impact of those books were on me, of course, but I’ve always admired people who do not conform to the more absurd social pressures, people who are not bowed by overreaching institutional authority, people who speak out for what they believe, people who stand up to bullies.
JJM Was there a particular book you read early in life that led to an interest in writing?
HR I don’t think so. It was books in general. I read voraciously, and I started writing stories at the age of eight. I had a very happy childhood, but it was nevertheless a magical pleasure to be transported to another world through books. I imagine it’s very common for kids who are avid readers to dream of being a writer themselves. I think somehow I had the idea that to be a writer was a way to be a grownup without quite growing up. I still think that.
JJM What is next for you?
HR I’m currently writing a book about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, their weird and legendary relationship. Back to Paris!
Richard Wright products at Amazon.com
Hazel Rowley products at Amazon.com
Interview took place via email on May 28, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Zora Neale Hurston scholar Carla Kaplan