© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

/ Getty Images
Getty Images

African-American author Richard Wright had a very different upbringing from his daughter, Julia. In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright described the neighborhood he lived in as a child as swarming with "rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors and children."

"Smoke obscured the vision and cinders drifted into the house, into our beds, into our kitchens, into our food; and a tarlike smell was always in the air," he wrote.

Just a generation later, his daughter grew up in a very different world; in the late 1940s, Wright moved the family to Paris, where Julia would later attend the Sorbonne.

It was in Paris that Julia first encountered her father's famous autobiography. She was 12 at the time, and she found Black Boy on the shelf one evening when her parents were at the theater.

"I really didn't want to read it. I maybe would have preferred a mystery," she recalls. "Then I went into the kitchen and took some chocolate caramels and went to bed with Black Boy and the chocolate caramels."

Here's some of what she read: By the time Wright was 12, he'd set fire to his mother's home, been sent to an orphanage and been lured into a Memphis bar and plied with liquor.

"When I got to the end of Chapter 2 and I read that he only had an orange for Christmas and that he sucked it slowly to make it last, I spit the caramels out," says Julia.

Richard Wright's story of his childhood made him one of America's most popular writers in the 1940s. In addition to Black Boy, which he dedicated to then 3-year-old Julia, he also wrote Native Son, a fictional account of a black youth in the segregated North.

Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an uneducated black man from Chicago who unintentionally kills a young white woman. Bigger is a study in contrasts: Strong, ignorant and angry, he's also confused, vulnerable and at a loss about how to deal with a racist society. Wright's novel makes Bigger into America's native son — the offspring of a nation's bigotry.

Julia has spent this year — the centennial of Richard Wright's birth — talking about A Father's Law, the book her father was writing when he died. It's about the relationship between generations. But now, a hundred years after Wright's birth, it seems that his books aren't as widely read as they used to be.

"You would be surprised at how many students don't know who Richard Wright is," says Latashia Wansley Clark, a student at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wright's hometown of Natchez, Miss. To mark the centennial of his birth, the college produced a documentary about his life and work.

"Actually, I'm 32 years old and I didn't know who Richard Wright was before I started this documentary," Wansley Clark says.

"It changed my life," she says. "I read the book and now I read books all the time, because of the impact that it had on me. It's like you're there with [Wright] as he's going on his journey."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.