Richard Wright, Chicago’s “Native Son” – Guest Post by Michelle from That’s What She Read

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.

Michelle is the blogger behind That’s What She Read and is always working at the balance between career, blog, and family. In addition to this post, she is also reviewing “Black Boy” today.

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Sunday Spotlight On: Shel Silverstein

Weekends are going to be all about spotlights here during Chicago Author Month! Saturday was my inaugural publisher spotlight. Sundays will be something a little different. Sundays will spotlight either a book I’m dying to read but couldn’t fit a review of in, or a very special author. Today I’m going with the ‘very special author’ format.

When I first decided to devote a month to Chicago-area authors, I asked the lovely Jill from Fizzy Thoughts to do what she does so well, and write a song for me, this one to the tune of Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town.” What I didn’t expect, when I commissioned the song, was that Jill would introduce me Chicago authors I didn’t know about with it. One was Sara Paretsky, who I now can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before – look for a review of her latest book coming later this month – and the other was Shel Silverstein.

Now, of course Silverstein wasn’t actually a new-to-me author. I grew up on and adored “The Light in the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” I also enjoyed “The Giving Tree,” “The Missing Piece,” and “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,” although they were not as near and dear to my heart as his poetry – I still remember my family’s excitement when “Falling Up” was published in 1996. What I did not know was that he was born and grew up in Chicago, even attending the Art Institute for a year and being published for the first time in the student newspaper at Roosevelt University.

I spent countless hours in grade school with Shel Silverstein’s books of highly entertaining, occasionally slightly disgusting poetry. They were an integral part of my childhood, really. So, you can imagine that I was slightly disturbed to read that he was at one point a cartoonist for Playboy magazine. Really, though, it was Silverstein’s editor at Harper & Row who even convinced him to write children’s poetry in the first place, his initial love was cartooning.

Thank goodness for editors, I suppose, because I am eternally thankful that I had the gift of Shel Silverstein’s poetry as a child.