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America's disregard of Richard as an artist and a man, plus his own interest in examining

the mechanics of the oppression of black people, may have led him into his next venture—a trip

to Africa. For it all began in Africa; the slave trade and slavery; lost roots, forgotten heritages.

Where better to continue the study of what was happening to Negroes than in Africa?



Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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Richard Wright Print Resources

Compiled by Jerry W. Ward



The most valuable guides to Wright’s published and unpublished works are Richard Wright: A Primary Bibliography (1982), compiled by Michel Fabre and Charles T. Davis and Timothy G. Young’s finding aid for RICHARD WRIGHT PAPERS, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Keneth Kinnamon’s A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2006) are the most comprehensive guides to secondary sources, including books, articles, reviews, doctoral dissertations, master’s theses, handbooks, study guides, interviews, chapters in books and encyclopedia articles.  For listings of materials after 2003, one should consult the annual MLA International Bibliography and on-line databases.


Constance Webb’s Richard Wright: A Biography (1968), the first full-length study of Wright’s life is still valuable; its limitations, however, are exposed by Michel Fabre’s masterful The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973; 2nd ed. 1993).  Addison Gayle’s Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (1980), Margaret Walker’s Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), and Hazel Rowley’s Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Henry Holt, 2001; University of Chicago Press, 2008) provide stimulating challenges to some of the conclusion in Fabre’s biography.  More recent biographies include Debbie Levy’s Richard Wright: A Biography (2008)–especially good for young readers and Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen (2010)–especially good as a reference for public school classrooms.

Critical Studies

Two books by Michel Fabre, The World of Richard Wright (1985) and Richard Wright: Books and Writers (1990) deserve special attention, as do Eugene E. Miller’s Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990), Keneth Kinnamon’s The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study of Literature and Society (1973), and Joyce Ann Joyce’s Richard Wright’s Art of Tragedy (1986).  Russell Brignano’s Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works (1970) and Edward Margolies’s The Art of Richard Wright (1969) tell us much about the critical biases of the 1960s. 

Several collections of essays provide crucial background and interpretive information on Wright’s fiction and non-fiction.  The more notable ones are Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.and K. A. Appiah; Critical Essays on Richard Wright (1982), edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani; Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (1984),edited by Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer; Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (1995), edited by Arnold Rampersad; The Critical Response to Richard Wright (1995), edited by Robert J. Butler, and Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son (1997), edited by James A. Miller. 

John M. Reilly’s Richard Wright: The Critical Reception (1978) is an invaluable source for reviews of Wright’s published works up to 1977.  The interviews collected in Conversations with Richard Wright (1993), edited by Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre, help us to understand more about Wright as the engaged artist.  Manthia Diawara’s “Situation II: Richard Wright and Modern Africa” (In Search of Africa, 1998) and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “A Long Way from Home: Wright in the Gold Coast” (Richard Wright, 1987, edited by Harold Bloom) provide contrasting African views of Wright.  These two essays should be read in conjunction with Richard Wright’s Travel Writings: New Reflections (2001), edited by Virginia Whatley Smith. 

One should not overlook the chapter on Wright’s intellectual legacy in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) and the discussions of Wright’s friendship with Ralph Ellison in Lawrence Jackson’ Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002) and in Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007).  One of the most challenging studies of Wright’s creative intelligence is Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (2005). Equally thought-provoking is Chapter Five, “Richard Wright’s Scottsboro of the Imagination,” in James A. Miller’s Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (2009).


Ward, Jerry W. and Robert J. Butler, eds. The Richard Wright Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

JWW 8 August 2010

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The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970)

By John A. Williams

America's disregard of Richard as an artist and a man, plus his own interest in examining the mechanics of the oppression of black people, may have led him into his next venture—a trip to Africa. For it all began in Africa; the slave trade and slavery; lost roots, forgotten heritages. Where better to continue the study of what was happening to Negroes than in Africa?

The idea was first suggested by Mrs. George Padmore, who was a guest of the Wrights. Her husband had remained behind in London to work with Kwame Nkrumah, who was going to ask for self-government for the Gold Coast (later Ghana) that summer. In fact, Mrs. Padmore's suggestion was specific: go to the Gold Coast.

The postwar years had seen a ferment for freedom around the world in the colonies of Britain, France, The Netherlands, and Belgium. "What about the Four Freedoms?" the people in the colonies wanted to know. Keeping pace with the cresting desire for independence, the Fifth Pan-African Congress had been held in Manchester, England, only the year before. Wright's Ghana in the 1950s

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Wright's biographer John A. Williams wrote in The Most Native of Sons, a Biography of Richard Wright: "The life of a small black boy in a small country town in the Deep South could be very peaceful, as it sometimes was for Richard. Under the bright, hot summer sun, he fished with his father and his brother, walked slowly along the dusty roads, or played in the fields. Though the wounds of segregation in the Deep South and throughout the country always followed him, Wright said, 'I know America. I know what a great nation and people America could be but won't be until there is only one American, regardless of his color or his religion or anything else'." Southern Literary Trail

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An American Goes Back to Africa: Richard Wright’s Journey of Discovery (Rudolph Lewis)

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Richard Wright Papers


Processed by Timothy G. Young

Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

New Haven, Connecticut

April 1994
Last Updated: October 2006


The Wright Papers were purchased in 1976 from Mrs. Ellen Wright, Richard Wright's widow.

Richard Wright 1908-1960

Richard Nathaniel Wright was born September 4, 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi, to Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher, and Nathan Wright, a sharecropper. The story of Richard Wright's childhood, with its harrowing episodes of abandonment by his father, his temporary consignment to an orphanage after his mother became ill, and his short-lived schooling under the harsh guardianship of his grandmother have been detailed in his autobiography, Black Boy (published in 1945 by Harper & Row).

Wright's break with his past began in 1927, when he left the South for the more hopeful environs of Chicago. There, he worked at a number of different jobs, continued to educate himself by reading and began to write. During the early years of the Depression, Wright found himself attracted to local Communist groups, eventually joining the Chicago John Reed Club. His entrance into this exciting political milieu was matched by an increasingly prolific output of writing. He published poetry in left-wing journals such as New Masses and The Anvil, and began working on early versions of  Lawd Today!  and Tarbaby's Dawn. In 1935, he was employed by the Illinois Federal Writers Project, which further strengthened his hopes of being a published author.

Wright moved to New York in 1937 to act as the head of the Harlem Bureau of the Daily Worker. His first major break came the following year, when he submitted four long stories for a contest sponsored by Story magazine and won a publishing contract. The collection, published as Uncle Tom's Children, garnered sympathetic reviews and secured Wright an agent and a hopeful future as a novelist.

The work Wright proposed next was to be a deeply realistic account of oppression and black rage. With the assistance of a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Wright spent much of 1939 writing Native Son. Harper & Row published the novel on March 1, 1940. The resulting sales and critical acclaim for the book placed Wright in the position as the most well-known black author in America. In January, 1941, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP.

Though Wright was constantly working on several different novels intended to follow Native Son, he switched the focus of his creative endeavors to different forms of writing. Late in 1940, he began a stage adaptation of Native Son in collaboration with Paul Green. The production debuted in early 1941 on Broadway in a production staged by Orson Welles. The summer of that year saw the publication of a collection of photographs of black Americans, 12 Million Black Voices, accompanied by a discursive essay by Wright, and a collaboration with Count Basie on a jazz song, "Joe Louis Blues" ["King Joe" King Joe, Part 1 / King Joe, Part 2 ].

In March 1941, Wright married Ellen Poplar. (A brief marriage to Rose Dhima Meadman had ended in divorce in 1938). Richard and Ellen Wright would have two children, Julia, in 1942, and Rachael in 1949.

Between 1943-45, while Wright tried his hand at other fields of the arts, such as screenwriting, he concentrated on writing his autobiography. The finished draft, known as "American Hunger," was cut in half by the time it was ready for publication. The resulting work, Black Boy, thus details Wright's life only from the time he was born to the point of his departure from the South in 1927. Though sections of the suppressed later sections of the book appeared in print in various places in subsequent years, the original work was only completely "published" posthumously with the appearance of American Hunger in 1977.

In 1946, at the invitation of the French Government, Wright visited France for a period of six months. He returned the following year with his family to live and remained there until his death. The translation of his books and stories into French clinched his growing popularity in that country. While at work on a second novel, Wright took time off between 1949-51 to work on the film version of Native Son. Having found a partner in the French director Pierre Chenal, Wright adapted his most well-known work to this medium and prepared to play the role of Bigger Thomas, himself. The movie, shot in Argentina and alternately titled Sangre Negra, debuted in America in 1951 to less than enthusiastic reviews and even a legal action which successfully banned its projection in several states.

In 1953, Wright reaffirmed his stature as a novelist by publishing, The Outsider, on which he had been working since the publication of Black Boy. This was followed a year later by a shorter work, Savage Holiday. For the rest of the decade, Wright concentrated on reportorial writing. He describes his 1953 trip to the Gold Coast of Africa in Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. His attendance at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955 is the subject of The Color Curtain. His commentary and analysis of the culture of Spain was published in 1956 as Pagan Spain. White Man Listen! , which appeared in 1957, brought together four essays and lectures, on which Wright had been working for many years. 

Wright returned once again to the novel form in 1958, publishing The Long Dream, a work that was quickly adapted by Ketti Frings for the stage. It debuted on Broadway in 1959 and ran for five performances. Wright's own adaptation of Louis Sapin's "Papa, Bon Dieu" (as "Daddy Goodness") also suffered a short life, its production abandoned in the Spring of 1959 (before finally being staged in New York in 1968). In 1959, Wright pursued the possibility of moving his family to England, but faced ultimate rejection from the immigration authorities. This, coupled with failing health, slowed his preparation of a collection of short stories. In late November, 1960, Wright was admitted to a clinic in Paris to undergo medical examinations. While resting at the clinic, he died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960, at the age of 52. Library Beinecke

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Black Power

A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos

By Richard Wright


Wright gives a detailed account of his six months in West Africa, Ghana / "Gold Coast" circa 1953. The British still rule with an imperial hand, but the seeds of revolution are being sown. Wright meets Brits, common tribal folk, tribal chiefs, local business men, educated native elites, revolutionary leaders, etc. The book is great because Wright is thoroughly honest about his own views and bias and this gives the book a very objective feel. A very honest and revealing book.—Douglass Schmitt

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I walked briskly and determinedly off, looking over my shoulder and keeping in the line of my vision that dance; I stared at the circling men and women until I could see them no more. The women had been holding their hands joined together above the heads of the men, and the men, as though they had been playing London Bridge Is Falling Down, were filing with slow dignity through the handmade arches. The feet of the dancers had barely lifted from the ground as they shuffled; their bodies had made sharp angles as they moved and I had been surprised to see that they were moving much quicker than I had thought; they had given me the impression of moving slowly, lazily, but, at that distance, there was a kind of concentrated tension in their gyrations, yet they were utterly relaxed. I had been looking backward as I walked and then the young man pulled the wooden gate shut and it was gone forever . . . I had understood nothing. I was black and they were black, but my blackness did not help me. Excerpted from the book Black Power by Richard Wright  © 1954

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Constance Webb, model, actor and author, born June 12 1918; died March 28 2005Writer wife of CLR JamesBorn in Fresno, California, the fifth of six children, Constance was a bright girl for whom perhaps the defining moment of her childhood was the discovery of her father's racism. Constance's sense of social justice was ignited by this, and other discoveries, and at the age of 15 she joined the Socialist party.

Three years later, Webb travelled to Los Angeles to listen to the "elegant" C L R James lecturing on The Negro Question. The 37-year-old Trinidadian skillfully engineered the opportunity to spend a few hours alone with Webb before pressing on to Mexico, where he was scheduled to meet Leon Trotsky.

According to Webb's memoir, Not Without Love (2003), James conducted himself as the perfect gentleman and spoke about race issues in the US. For the next six years, James maintained a regular correspondence with her, which amounted to more than 200 letters, published in 1996 in the volume Special Delivery. . . .

By 1945 James and Webb found themselves together in New York. In the intervening six years, Webb had married and divorced two husbands, modelled for Salvador Dalí, embarked upon an acting career, and begun a very public affair with a prominent actor.

In May 1946 James and Webb married. The American author Richard Wright was, at this stage, a very close friend and confidant of James. Wright was also married to a white woman and the two couples often spent time together, offering each other solace as they learned how to deal with the racism, social disquiet and political egotism of the times.

James and Webb also socialised with Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes, and Webb's memoir offers much interesting insight into the squabbles and disputes between these "lions" of black American literature. Webb's marriage to James eventually collapsed in the 1950s: Webb had at least one affair, although James freely indulged in many. Guardian

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Special Delivery

The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939-1948

By C. L. R. James, Constance Webb, and Anna Grimshaw

C.L.R. James, is an extraordinary 20th century figure. An author, historian, reporter on the sport of cricket, Africanist, Marxist, black intellectual, and friend of many of the leading left radicals of the day. His history of the Haitian slave revolution, The Black Jacobins, is a masterpiece of humanity and empathy. James spent 15 years living in the United States from 1938, and there he fell in love with an 18-year-old Southern white girl, Constance Webb. It was an amazing ill-match; she really was not too interested. So he wrote her passionate love letters, collected here in Special Delivery. When the two did eventually marry, divorce quickly followed, as might have been predicted; still, these erudite letters, from one of the most intelligent and cultured men of his generation, remain an amazing testament to love, and the folly of it

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The Addison Gayle Jr. Reader

Edited by Nathaniel Norment Jr.

This reader collects sixty of the personal essays, critical articles, and other seminal works of Addison Gayle Jr., one of the most influential figures in African American literary criticism and a key pioneer in the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement. The volume contains selective essays that represent the range of Gayle's writing on such subjects as relationships between father and son, cultural nationalism, racism, black aesthetics, black criticism, and black literature. The collection, the first of its kind, includes definitive essays such as "Blueprint for Black Criticism," "The Harlem Renaissance: Toward a Black Aesthetic," and "Cultural Strangulation: Black Literature and the White Aesthetics." A key chapter from Gayle's autobiography is supplemented by his literary criticism, and a general introduction and editor's notes for each section discuss the articles' lasting significance and influence.  Table of Contents

Addison Gayle Jr., Literary Critic, Is Dead at 59—By Eleanor Blau—October 5, 1991— distinguished professor of English at Baruch College and the City University Graduate Center, died Thursday at Beth Israel Hospital North in Manhattan. He was 59 years old and lived in East Orange, N.Y. . . . Professor Gayle was the editor of The Black Aesthetic, a 1971 volume of essays, and wrote biographies including Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (1980), which documented the Government's long-time surveillance of Wright because of his political beliefs.

Other works included The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (1975), the autobiography Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey (1977), and biographies of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay and W. E. B. Du Bois, the last recently completed and unpublished. A Profound Influence. NYTimes

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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What This Cruel War Was Over

Soldiers Slavery and the Civil War

By Chandra Manning

For this impressively researched Civil War social history, Georgetown assistant history professor Manning visited more than two dozen states to comb though archives and libraries for primary source material, mostly diaries and letters of men who fought on both sides in the Civil War, along with more than 100 regimental newspapers. The result is an engagingly written, convincingly argued social history with a point—that those who did the fighting in the Union and Confederate armies "plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War." Manning backs up her contention with hundreds of first-person testimonies written at the time, rather than often-unreliable after-the-fact memoirs. While most Civil War narratives lean heavily on officers, Easterners and men who fought in Virginia, Manning casts a much broader net. She includes immigrants, African-Americans and western fighters, in order, she says, "to approximate cross sections of the actual Union and Confederate ranks." Based on the author's dissertation, the book is free of academese and appeals to a general audience, though Manning's harsh condemnation of white Southerners' feelings about slavery and her unstinting praise of Union soldiers' "commitment to emancipation" take a step beyond scholarly objectivity.—Publishers Weekly

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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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posted 11 August 2010 




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