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Events to honor Black Boy author Richard Wright

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by Helaine R. Williams, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

In his celebrated autobiography Black Boy, award-winning author Richard Wright chronicled the short time he spent living in Elaine and West Helena during his early-20th-century childhood.

The time in Arkansas, among myriad less-than-idyllic experiences in Wright’s youth, shaped his perspective on race and life in the South. Wright’s mother, Ella, moved with her sons to Elaine to live with her sister Maggie Hopkins, and Maggie’s husband, Silas. Wright became close to his uncle Silas, a builder and saloonkeeper, but lost him when Uncle Silas was murdered by whites in 1917. Wright, his mother, brother and aunt moved to West Helena and stayed there until his mother had a debilitating stroke that landed Wright with another uncle and aunt in Greenwood, Miss. He never returned to Arkansas to live.

Wright — also author of the acclaimed Uncle Tom’s Children and Native Son and hailed by the Independent Television Service (itvs. org ) as “the African-American writer who changed the face of American literature” — would have turned 100 this Thursday. That’s the day two Little Rock events will honor his legacy.

“Richard Wright 100 th Birthday Tribute” is the theme of radio show Literacy Nation, which will air from noon to 1 p.m. on KABF-FM, 88. 3. Hosted by Patrick Oliver, the show will feature in-studio guest Patricia McGraw, retired University of Central Arkansas English and history professor. Call-in guests will be Jerry Ward, English professor at Dillard University and Richard Wright scholar; Julia Wright, writer and daughter of Richard Wright; and Maryemma Graham of the University of Kansas.

The evening will bring a Richard Wright 100th Tribute and Black Boy Book Discussion at the Willie Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center, 3805 W. 12th St. Doors will open at 5: 30 p.m. The free event will include: Exhibits by community organizations, including Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Pyramid Art Books & Custom Framing, Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, Black Community Developers and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Cultural Enrichment Center. 6: 30 p. m.: Welcome by Edmund Davis, Little Rock Chapter Black Male Development Symposium. Unveiling of the Richard Wright Day Proclamation issued by the governor’s office.

Short video on the life of Wright, presented by Oliver. Presentation on Wright’s teen years by Ryan Davis; excerpt reading to follow. “The Poetry in Black Boy,” presented by Central High English teacher Stacy McAdoo; excerpt reading to follow. “Richard Wright and the Harlem Renaissance,” presented by writer, professor and poet Akasha Hull; excerpt reading to follow. “Today’s music in Black Boy,” presented by DJ Prophet. Rap, hip-hop and R&B music will be played before and between presentations. Featured artists will include Stevie Wonder, Tupac Shakur, Wynton Marsalis, Kanye West, Public Enemy, Marvin Gaye, Common and others. Music tribute by saxophonist Gerald Johnson.

The radio show and evening program are hosted by the Little Rock Chapter of the Black Male Development Symposium and the Say It Loud ! Readers and Writers series.

Oliver, Say It Loud ! founder, says he felt led to organize these events because of the magnitude of Wright’s influence.

“Richard Wright is one of the greatest writers in history,” he says. “When someone of this caliber has ties with Arkansas, it is important that we share this with the community. The world is celebrating Wright’s 100 th birthday so it is only fitting that Arkansas follow suit.” Oliver reiterates how Wright’s brief stay in Arkansas influenced his writings. “Youth, parents, educators and community leaders should be aware of his writings and accomplishments,” he says. “Our scheduled program is very youth and community oriented.” The book Black Boy, Oliver says, was brought to his attention by author, educator, publisher and Arkansas native Haki R. Madhubuti.

“I was captivated by Wright’s use of language to tell his life story,” Oliver recalls. “As a Southerner and young man I was able to appreciate Wright’s powerful imagery.” He was led to read other works by Wright.

In its introduction to the 1995 documentary Richard Wright — Black Boy, an Independent Television Service article tells of how Wright was asked in 1945 why he wrote this “harrowing account of his Southern childhood.” Wright’s response: He wanted to “give [his ] tongue to voiceless Negro boys”… which he once was.

Richard Nathaniel Wright was born near Natchez, Miss., on Sept. 4, 1908. He was one of two sons born to a sharecropper (who later abandoned the family ) and a schoolteacher, according to the ITVS biography. He was a childhood bookworm, and his readings made him that much more dissatisfied with “life in the segregated South.” After multiple moves between Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee as a child, he went to Chicago, working as a streetsweeper and a postal worker during the Depression.

He became associated with the Communist Party and became one of the highlighted writers of the “school for social protest” in Chicago. He broke with the Communist Party because of its desire to influence his writing. In 1937 he moved to New York and published his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children. But it was his second, best-selling book, Native Son (1940 ), that brought Wright fame. It was the first book by a black author to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Wright went on to pen Black Boy, published in 1945. It, too, became a best-seller. But FBI monitoring due to his past Communist Party ties, along with racial prejudice, dogged Wright. In 1946 he visited Paris and London and in 1947 returned to New York. But he subsequently moved his family to France to escape the restrictions he faced in the United States.

Wright starred in a low-budget film production of Native Son in 1950, playing the title role of Bigger Thomas. (Another version was filmed in 1986. ) He continued to lecture and write essays and books on race and became interested in pan-Africanism, a movement that emphasizes the unity of all black people through their common history, culture and experience.

Wright died of a heart attack in 1960, at the age of 52.

Julia Wright, who is traveling from her home in Paris to Mississippi on Tuesday for a commemoration of her father’s birthday there, says his most enduring legacy “is to have given a lie to the Establishment statistics which programmed black boys like him to delinquency.” She echoes his message: “Say the truth to power and don’t let that power define your life and death and our fate as a people. Keep asking questions and don’t rest until you get the answers. And if the answers are hurtful to you and those you love, then create your own answers by using words as weapons.” In spite of his literary success, Wright was a man who was forced to spend most of his life on the move.

His biography reveals numerous instances of a search for acceptance with various peoples, locales, organizations and governments with which he didn’t fit in or eventually grew disillusioned.

Julia Wright says her father learned that lack of acceptance from whites was going to be a given. “But betrayal by blacks like him was always painful, hurtful and awakened anger.” She refers to The Long Dream (1958 ), his last novel about the South, which she describes as “a bitter indictment of the moral corruption within most of the black bourgeoisie in America. The bitterness sends us back to the pre-slavery situation, perhaps, but also to the importance of the class struggle within our own ranks.” Does she believe her father ever found peace ?

“Being on the move is a cultural / historical trait that goes back to slavery and our internalized memory of it,” she observes. “Yes, I think he found peace — but not necessarily the way we have been taught to define the word, often in heavily Christian terms.” Wright recalls that during her father’s last years in Paris, a friend introduced him to haiku, an ancient form of Japanese poetry inspired by Zen Buddhism.

“In mastering the writing of these tiny little poems… he did find that sort of Oriental-style ‘peace,’ which finds more meaning in asking the right questions than in finding the right answers,” she says. Richard Wright 100 th Birthday Tribute and Black Boy Book Discussion 6: 30 p.m. Thursday, Willie Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center, 3805 W. 12 th St. Admission: Free (312 ) 287-0415


Written by Symphony

September 1, 2008 at 6:00 am

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