Birth of a Classic – Native Son by Richard Wright
On March 1, 1940, Richard Wright’s (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) Native Son was released to critical acclaim. Now, 80 years later it is still one of the most significant and emotional tomes about the plight and pain of African American life in The United States.
Native Son has always drawn controversy. For some African Americans, it hit too close to home; exposing the raw emotions felt from centuries of oppression, racism, and discrimination they do not want to remember. For others, he voiced with precision the pain and frustration that filled them with anger.
As a ‘native daughter’ of Chicago, Native Son was required-reading in high school. Born in 1955, I grew up in Bigger’s Chicago, so his experiences and emotions hit close to the bone for me.
I entered high school in 1968, just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I entered high school a militant, eventually sporting my Angela Davis natural, and shouting “Black Power”. I was excited when our reading lists included books such as “Black Voices” and “Native Son”.
Wright was born at Rucker’s Plantation, in Mississippi. His father was a sharecropper and his mother was a schoolteacher. His parents were born free however both sets of his grandparents had been born into slavery. Wright said this upbringing in Mississippi and his time in Tennessee shaped his view knowledge of racism in America. Wright moved to Chicago at the age of 19, later living in various US cities before finding his way to Paris in 1946.
A historic marker in Natchez, Mississippi, commemorating Richard Wright, who was born near the City
Plaque commemorating Wright's residence in Paris, at 14, rue Monsieur le Prince.
In Paris, his circle of friends included French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. as well as fellow expatriate writers Chester Himes and James Baldwin. His relationship with Baldwin however, ended after Baldwin published his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” criticizing Wright’s portrayal of Bigger Thomas.
Wright became a French citizen in 1947, Wright and lived the rest of his life in France. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960, the age of 52 and was interred in Le Père Lachaise
While many books fade to obscurity, Native Son continues to shed light on the lives of Black folk and the oppression, racism, and discrimination we continue to endure. With the improvements in race relations that have taken place, however, Native Son still exposes the sorry treatment today of not just African Americans but all people of color.