The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Richard Wright was born September 4, 1908. Learn more about him to celebrate his birthday this weekend and the forthcoming launch of our new exhibit and education initiative Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice. Wright is featured prominently in the exhibit, as he was a leading voice during his time, a voice that still resonates today. Dark Testament opens September 22, 2022 at the American Writers Museum.
Richard Wright’s anguished Native Son (1940), the story of a man’s downward spiral into murder, electrified readers. It became the first best-selling novel by an African-American writer. His follow-up, the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), was also a best seller. Together, the books exposed the entrenched racism that, as Wright wrote, made all Americans “powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces.”
Wright’s success made him a public figure, the leading African-American intellectual of his day—even after 1947, when he moved to Europe permanently. As an expatriate, Wright broadened his focus to explore the global consequence of colonialism, most notably with his works Black Power (1954) and The Color Curtain (1956).
Wright and his young family spent a year living at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, an artist commune that had also housed poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, and novelist Carson McCullers, among other notables.
“Native Son was like no other work of Black literature before it… Never had the brute force of racism’s crushing impact up in a black consciousness been revealed before in fiction, certainly never with such starkness… In a sense, the book performed a public, ritualized unveiling—the removal of the very mask of our blackness itself. Certainly the effect was like nothing before in the history of American letters.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., preface to Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993)