Richard Wright by Gordon Parks, May 1943. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USW3-030278-D
African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature
Richard Nathaniel Wright
Richard Wright, acclaimed author, and recognized leader of the Chicago Renaissance (1935- 1950) conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Black communities of Chicago and New York City as a Federal Writers’ Project worker and drew on the blues aesthetic and literary naturalism frameworks for his writings about Black life.
Richard Nathaniel Wright, the grandson of a slave, was born in 1908 in the backwoods of Mississippi near Natchez, to Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher. Wright was five years old when his father abandoned the family, and his mother was forced to work as a domestic to try to make ends meet. Wright experienced years of hunger, shelter insecurity, sporadic school attendance, and frequent mobility, living with various relatives throughout Mississippi and Arkansas throughout his childhood. In 1916, his uncle, Silas Hoskins, with whom his family was living at the time, was lynched near Elaine, Arkansas and the family had to flee the area. Hoskin’s lynching, a precursor to the 1919 Elaine Arkansas Massacre, was based in backlash toward Black farmers acquiring economic independence and landownership during segregation. These experiences with white supremacist violence shaped Wright’s worldview and writing throughout his life.
By age 10, Wright was forced to work odd jobs to support the family after his mother became incapacitated from a stroke. He published his first short story at age 16 in 1924. In 1925, Wright finished the ninth grade as class valedictorian and decided to leave school and turn to self-education in order to support the family. When he moved on his own to Memphis in 1925, he was exposed to violence, urban crime, and racism, but as a voracious reader, found writers who inspired him.
In December 1927, during the Great Migration, Wright moved to Chicago with an aunt, bringing his brother and mother there in 1928. In Chicago, Wright not only launched his writing career but was able to channel his observations of Black life in Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago into a view of folklore that was based in his experiences of inequity and oppression. Seeking to adopt a political perspective that was committed to freedom, he aligned with Socialist political and literary groups. As a founder of the South Side Writers Group in 1933, he made friends with Margaret Walker and Arna Bontemps. In 1935, Wright took a job with Chicago’s Federal Writers’ Project, where he started to incorporate realistic new images and perspectives of Black urban experiences into his writings, drawn from his observations of Black despair about the persistence of poverty, racism, and violence, in the migratory transition from the rural South to the urban centers in the North.
In 1937, Wright became the Bureau Chief of The Daily Worker in New York and joined the Federal Writers Project there, contributing to the city guidebook, New York Panorama (1938) in general and with the essay, “Harlem.” Rejecting Communism in 1944, in 1946 Wright became a permanent expatriate, living in France until his death. The recipient of several awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1939) and the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP (1941), Wright was prolific.
Among the works of interest to folklorists is:
12 Million Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941)