Richard Wright

Richard Wright was born into a poor Mississippi sharecropping family that his father deserted when the boy was five. Wright was the first African-American novelist to reach a general audience, even though he had barely a ninth grade education. His harsh childhood is depicted in one of his best books, his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He later said that his sense of deprivation, due to racism, was so great that only reading kept him alive.

The social criticism and realism of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis especially inspired Wright. During the 1930s, he joined the Communist party; in the 1940s, he moved to France, where he knew Gertrude Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre and became an anti-Communist. His outspoken writing blazed a path for subsequent African-American novelists.

His work includes Uncle Tom's Children (1938), a book of short stories, and the powerful and relentless novel Native Son (1940), in which Bigger Thomas, an uneducated black youth, mistakenly kills his white employer's daughter, gruesomely burns the body, and murders his black girlfriend -- fearing she will betray him. Although some African-Americans have criticized Wright for portraying a black character as a murderer, Wright's novel was a necessary and overdue expression of the racial inequality that has been the subject of so much debate in the United States.