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Native Son is a powerful, intensely gripping story of a Negro boy driven to crime

by reason of a Chicago tenement environment and the pressure of racial injustice. 

The novel was thought to be the most striking novel to appear after The Grapes of Wrath.



Books by Richard Wright

 Richard Wright: Early Works  / Black Boy  / Native Son  / Uncle Tom's Children / 12 Million Black Voices  / Richard Wright: Later Works

The Outsider  /  Pagan Spain Black Power  /  White Man Listen!  / The Color Curtain Savage Holiday / The Long Dream

Eight Men: Short Stories  / Haiku / American Hunger /  Lawd Today!

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Richard N. Wright


Author of  Uncle Tom's Children  & Native Son


Richard Wright was a brilliant writer whose collection of short stories (novellas), Uncle Tom's Children, won a $500-prize competition in 1938. Native Son, the March 1940 selection of the Book-of-the-Month club, was his first full-length novel. In 1935, Wright got on the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago. By the time he had sold poetry, articles and some stories to little magazines, and was working on his first, Uncle Tom's Children.

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He went to New York in 1937, lived from hand to mouth for some months, then got on the Writers' Project. he wrote the essay on Harlem in New York Panorama. he also did some work on the Daily Worker (he says he never got orders from Stalin to cover anything) and became a contributing editor of the New Masses.

His book of four long short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, part of which had originally appeared in in the New Caravan, was a success. The stories won high critical praise; what one critic had to say of them is characteristic: "Uncle Tom's Children has its full share of violence and brutality; violent deaths occur in three stories and the mob goes to work in all four. Violence has long been an important element in fiction about Negroes, just as it is in their life. But where Julia Peterkin in her pastorals and Roark Bradford in his levee farces show violence to be the reaction of primitives unadjusted to modern civilization, Richard Wright shows it as the way in which civilization keeps the Negro in his place. And he knows what he is writing about."

In 1939 Wright got a Guggenheim fellowship, which enabled him to quit the Project and complete his novel, Native Son. the material for this, he says, was based partly on boys he met in a Chicago rehabilitation school for Negro "Dead End" kids, and partly on the Robert Nixon case. Nixon was a young Negro who died in the electric chair in Chicago in August 1938 for killing a white woman with a brick.

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Uncle Tom's Children

Originally published in 1938 by Harper and Brothers as Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas, the volume consisted of "Big Boy Leaves Home," "Down by the Riverside," "Long Black Song," and "Fire and Cloud." In 1940, Harper reissued the volume as Uncle Tom's Children: Five Long Stories, incorporating "Bright and Morning Star" as well as placing "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" as the text's introduction.

Reviewing the text for the Saturday Review of Literature (2 April 1938), Zora Neale Hurston wrote "This is a book about hatreds. Mr. Wright serves notice by his title that he speaks of a people in revolt, and his stories are so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live. Not one act of understanding and sympathy comes to pass in the entire work"[1].

Reviewing the text for the Partisan Review (May 1938), James T. Farrell wrote "Especially remarkable is the handling of dialogue. Richard Wright uses simple speech as a means of carrying on his narrative, as a medium for poetic and lyrical effects, and as an instrument of characterization. Through the dialect of his people he is able to generalize their feelings about life, their fate, the social situation in which they live and suffer and are oppressed. Here is a demonstration -- which many writers might study -- of the possibilities of the vernacular"[2].

Hurston wasn't so excited about Wright's dialogue, criticizing Wright's use of dialect: "Since the author is himself a Negro, his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly he does not write by ear unless he is tone-deaf"[3].

"Big Boy Leaves Home" presents a child whose innocence is lost violently through a confrontation with the son of a white landowner. While Big Boy is aware of the racist society in which he lives, his reactions are more instinctive than reflective. In "Down by the Riverside," the protagonist Mann finds himself drawn into confrontations with the white community through circumstances beyond his control: first the flood, then the need to transport his wife, who is in labor, towards town in a boat stolen from a white man. Mann's responses to these circumstances suggest his resignation to fate, although he does consider and reject alternatives that would possibly save him.

With "Long Black Song," the characters begin to identify the systemic nature of racist oppression. Silas, who owns his own land but whose wife Sarah has been unfaithful with a white travelling salesman, confronts and kills the salesman, then calmly awaits the white mob. As Sarah looks on, Silas announces, "The white folks ain never gimme a chance! They ain never give no black man a chance! There ain nothin in yo whole life yuh kin keep from em! They take yo lan! They take yo freedom! They take yo women! N then they take yo life!" [4].

In "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star," Wright turns to an examination of the economic uses of racism, particularly the way in which skin color divides the working class and reinforces the capitalist power structure. In "Fire and Cloud," Reverend Taylor's realization that his leadership position in the Black community doesn't shield him from racist violence and in fact depends a good deal on his leading his people toward decisions that benefit the status quo leads him to reject the mayor's demand that he tell his hungry congregation not to participate in a communist led march. He tells his congregation, "All the time they wuz hepin me, all the time they been givin me favors, they wuz doin it sos they could tell me t tell yuh how t ack!" [5]

Taylor sides with the communists' cause, although he doesn't identify with the communists themselves. As his revelation comes to him, Taylor exclaims to his son, "Gawds wid the people! N the peoples gotta be real as Gawd t us! We cant hep ourselves er the people when wes erlone...All the will, all the strength, all the power, all the numbahs is in the people!" [6].

In "Bright and Morning Star," Wright continues an examination of the competing roles of religion and communism in his characters and their community. Johnny-Boy's mother Sue must come to grips with a new vision: "The wrongs and sufferings of black men had taken the place of Him nailed to the Cross; the meager beginnings of the party had become another resurrection" [7]. As in the other stories, Sue is finally forced to act through the physical violence visited upon her by the white community. In shooting the stoolpigeon Booker, Sue knows she has given up her own life. Her final sacrifice is not only a defense of her son, but also a defense of the Communist Party, for whom Johnny-Boy works as an organizer.

Wright's treatment of communism in the African American community in these stories is hardly simplistic. Taylor's understanding that his people's interests and the communists' goals are in tandem arises through his experiences in the food crisis. However, the text also allows Taylor to remain ambiguously independent of the Communist Party. Likewise

 in "Bright and Morning Star," the racial solidarity suggested or promised by communism is shown to be easily undermined through infiltration. In other words, although Johnny-Boy rejects the racial paradigm in favor of an economic analysis ("Ah cant see white n Ah cant see black...Ah sees rich men n Ah sees po men" [8].), he still must function in a community that hasn't thoroughly rejected it.

1] Appiah, K.A., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993), 3.
[2] Appiah 5.
[3] Appiah 4.
[4] Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom's Children (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 152.
[5] Wright, 217.
[6] Wright, 210.
[7] Wright, 225.
[8] Wright, 234.

Source: GWU

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Native Son is a powerful, intensely gripping story of a Negro boy driven to crime by reason of a Chicago tenement environment and the pressure of racial injustice.  The novel was thought to be the most striking novel to appear after The Grapes of Wrath. Critics have acclaimed Native Son as the most honest and important work written about the American Negro, daring because its author, himself a Negro, has presented in frank terms the savage brutality of a black boy "gone bad." Wright has a good reportorial style: simple, direct, at times staccato, on occasion rising to heights of poetic intensity.

Though compared to Dostoyevsky due to its study of crime and punishment, the story of Native Son rather parallels, in pattern and theme, Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Dresier's white boy and Wright's black boy are both social misfits; both are victims of the adolescent lure of sex and money; both commit crime not deliberately but accidentally; both are condemned to the electric chair. And the conclusion is the same: that environment was responsible for their crimes--though in the case of Wright's character there is also the frustrating, neurosis-producing effect of racial suppression. Bigger Thomas, who is twenty years old, lives with his mother, sister, and younger brother in one rat-infested room, for which they pay $8, in Chicago's South Side Black belt.

He has been in a reform school; he and his gang commit petty neighborhood thieving; he is surly, fearful, and a bully. he and his friend Gus like to imagine what they'd do if they were white.

"If you wasn't black and if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane," Gus said. For a moment Bigger contemplated; then both boys broke into hard laughter.

But Bigger gets a job as chauffeur to a millionaire philanthropist, Dalton, who makes his money in Negro tenement real estate. His daughter, Mary, is a radical; she asks Bigger to drive her that evening to a meeting with her Communist friend, Jan. When they try to treat him as an equal--shake hands with him, make him eat with them--Bigger is puzzled, scared, resentful.. They all have drinks; Mary, very intoxicated, is brought, half-carried, to her room at two in the morning by Bigger. Her mother who is blind comes into the bedroom and calls to the daughter. Crazed by the fear that Mary will answer and betray his presence, Bigger puts a pillow over the girl's face, and without meaning to, smothers her.

Frantic then, he burns her body in the furnace hoping to leave no trace of the crime, and tries to implicate Jan, the Communist: dimly he knows that the Reds are also an object of mob hatred. When the Negro mistress, Bessie, learns of this crime, he kills her to protect himself and throws her body down the air shaft of an old building. it is not long, however, before the death of Mary Dalton is traced to him (to the authorities, the Negro girl's death was negligible, as he knew it would be) and Bigger is caught while trying to escape over the tenement housetops.

The bloodshed, the horror, the tension--the swiftly paced melodramatic sequence of events--are at this point over. the latter part of the book is about Bigger's trial and defense: an exposition of an individual tragedy that symbolizes the tragedy of a race. it is Jan, the Communist, who calls on Bigger in his cell (and this time Bigger knows him for a friend) and arranges to have Max, a radical lawyer, defend him. 

Max's plea for Bigger, which the author bases to some extent on the arguments used by Clarence Darrow in the Loeb-Leopold case, follows the social premise that the hate of the whites toward Bigger is a subconscious feeling of guilt: by keeping him within rigid and sordid limits, they themselves actually were responsible for the murder of Mary Dalton. Bigger killed in order to keep from being killed, i.e., to preserve his integrity as a person, an individual. Max's plea becomes a defense of the twelve million Negroes in America--a nation without social, economic, or property rights.

Naturally, no plea can save Bigger. he is sentenced to die. As he says: "Now I come to think of it, it seems like something that just had to be." And Bigger, searching for some meaning in his act, some self-justification, tells max: "When a man kills, it's for something. . . I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em."

And for the first time in his life, because he had done something the white world really noticed, he felt a sense of freedom and power. he had always wanted, in his confused groping way, to belong, to feel an equality with other men. in prison he at last comes to know that Max, and Jan, accept him on man-to-man terms. And he can accept them. Bigger's last words, implicit with his self-realization and self-redemption, are: "Tell Mister. . . Tell Jan hello."

Source: Current Biography (1940)

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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man's experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor.  The Katrina Papers  provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar's life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global.  It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward's narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer

The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It's not like any encyclopedia I've seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes

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American Creation

Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic

By Joseph J. Ellis

This subtle, brilliant examination of the period between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase puts Pulitzer-winner Ellis (Founding Brothers) among the finest of America's narrative historians. Six stories, each centering on a significant creative achievement or failure, combine to portray often flawed men and their efforts to lay the republic's foundation. Set against the extraordinary establishment of the most liberal nation-state in the history of Western Civilization... in the most extensive and richly endowed plot of ground on the planet are the terrible costs of victory, including the perpetuation of slavery and the cruel oppression of Native Americans. Ellis blames the founders' failures on their decision to opt for an evolutionary revolution, not a risky severance with tradition (as would happen, murderously, in France, which necessitated compromises, like retaining slavery). Despite the injustices and brutalities that resulted, Ellis argues, this deferral strategy was a profound insight rooted in a realistic appraisal of how enduring social change best happens. Ellis's lucid, illuminating and ironic prose will make this a holiday season hit. Publishers Weekly /  American Creation (Joseph Ellis interview)

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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