When Jen asked me if I wanted to help out with her Chicago Author Month, I jumped at the chance. Having spent the large majority of my formative years in the Chicago suburbs, I relished the chance to support authors from the area, as well as share my love for all things Chicago. Yet, when Jen showed me the list of authors she was hoping to highlight, I was shocked by one name that appeared on the list – Richard Wright. I had read his autobiography, “Black Boy,” in high school and do not remember anything about Chicago in there. Was this really true? Yes, Richard Wright is definitely a Chicago author.
He fled to Chicago after leaving Memphis in 1927. Even though he lived there for ten years, he made his mark on the city, and the city made its mark on him. It was there that he truly started writing, thanks to the Federal Writers’ Project. He joined the Communist Party and wrote articles and stories for both the New Masses and the Daily Worker. Both of these actions would influence his most seminal work, “Native Son,” published in 1940.
Set in Chicago, “Native Son” confronts the issue of race head-on with his stereotypical depiction of Bigger Thomas. Eventually made into both a Broadway play and a movie, experts believe “Native Son” to be one of the galvanizing forces behind black leaders and helped break a path for future protests. His portrayal of race relations literally changed the way Americans viewed them forever.
Never a city to shy away from a fight, or a scandal, Mr. Wright used Chicago as the backdrop for a novel that set in motion the racial conflicts and changes that shaped the nation in the 1950s and 60s. The experience he gathered writing for the Communist Party gave rise to his talent and comfort level at sharing the starkness of his experiences with the world. Without his time in Chicago, Mr. Wright might not have been able to accomplish nor influence generations as he did. Chicago should definitely be proud to consider Richard Wright on of its own.