One walks along the street and strays unknowingly from one’s path; one then looks up suddenly for familiar landmarks, and seeing none, one feels lost. Panic drapes the look of the world in strangeness, and the more one stares blankly at that world, the stranger it looks, the more hideously frightening it seems. There is then born in one a wild, hot wish to project out upon that alien world the world that one is seeking. This wish is a hunger for power, to be in command of oneself.-Richard Wright, The Outsider (1951)
One hundred years ago today, Richard Wright was born on a plantation just outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Wright’s blistering intellect soon propelled him to the top of his class and out of Mississippi, first to Memphis and later, following many black migrants of the period, to Chicago where he secured employment as a postal clerk.
In the early 1930s, Wright fell into the Communist Party through a local John Reed Club, the literary front of the CPUSA. As a brilliant writer, Wright quickly gained prominence in lefty circles and beyond as described in this segment from Madison Lacy’s 1994 biopic of Wright.
But by the end of the 1930s, Wright had grown disillusioned with the Party (as famously described in his essay in the anti-Communist collection The God That Failed), if not with Marxism as a whole. After World War Two, Wright moved to Paris where he immersed himself in the waters of European existential thought and the world of exilic black radicalism, intermingling with other luminaries of the African diaspora including George Padmore and C.L.R. James.
It was in this milieu, that strange world described in the passage above, that Wright produced some of his most original meditations on race, class, and modernity—The Outsider, Black Power, and The Color Curtain—attempting to chart a course for the emergent anticolonial world independent of the Cold War antipodes of Stalinism and capitalism. The development of this line of thought was tragically cut short in late 1960 when Wright died of a heart attack, brought on by a course of treatment for amoebic dysentery, though his daughter Julia suspected, and still suspects, foul play.
Half a century later, these works retain their power. As political theorist Cedric Robinson noted:
In [Wright’s works], one can discover an independent and richly suggestive critique of the modern world—a critique whose voice is the most authentic sounding of the brutal depths of Western civilization and its history.So go read him!
p.s. Possibly of particular interest to readers of this blog is this article on the influence of Gorky and Dostoevsky on Wright, though I take issue with some of the conclusions of the piece.