February 19, 2018
Richard Wright as SledgehammerOn this day in 1960 the expatriate American writer Richard Wright died in Paris at the age of fifty-two. Wright's last fifteen years in France were a final stop in a life of migrations. As the son of an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper his early years were spent in poverty on the farm and then moving city to city in the South. He lived with both parents, then only his mother; with one uncle and then another and then a grandmother. He moved to Chicago, expecting the North would be better; he moved to New York to edit the Daily Worker, thinking the Communist Party was the answer. He rejected Communism, and then America; when he left for Europe he continued to travel throughout northern Africa and Asia, now taking the international reputation earned from his political writing and his two best-sellers -- the novel Native Son (1940), the autobiography Black Boy (1945) -- with him: "He came like a sledgehammer," wrote historian John Henrik Clarke, "like a giant out of the mountain with a sledgehammer, writing with a sledgehammer...." Of all the things Wright wanted to smash in racist America, the last may have been the Hollywood producer who wondered if he could make a film of Native Son with a white hero. This was in 1947; it was later that year, feeling that maybe white America was just not ever going to get it, that Wright left for Europe.
He would never return, though he would say that, looking back, "Anger turned into a sort of amazed pity, for I felt that America's barbaric treatment of the Negro was not one-half so bad as the destructive war which she waged, in striking at the Negro, against the Rights of Man, and against herself." While his final perspective on America and racism could hardly be described as detached, Wright began to study and compose haiku in his last months. Biographer Hazel Rowley says that these "gave Wright a modicum of inner peace in the worst period of despair and self-doubt he had ever known." While continuing with the other, sledgehammer writing (and constantly worrying that either his amoebic dysentery or some CIA/FBI plot was killing him), he wrote some 4000 of these "spider webs." If Wright's wife had chosen to tuck one into his coffin, rather than the copy of Black Boy which she did include, it might have been this:
then turn right where you will find
a peach tree blooming
my dreams still wander about
but on withered fields.
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