I recently read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, an autobiography of the novelist and poet born in 1908, depicting his early life in the South and his years in Chicago, from 1927 to 1937, until he moved on to New York and, after World War II, to Paris, where he spent the last 15 years of his life.
I exclaimed at the conditions under which he grew up, worried over his arrival as a teenager alone in a big northern city, admired his steps toward self-sufficiency (including work in the post office), and was inspired by his self-education program.
For a penniless African American boy whose formal education did not extend beyond the 9th grade to become a famed writer and friend of Sartre and Camus is quite an achievement.
As part of my reading, I dug out a forceful article of Wright’s, “Not My People’s War,” The New Masses, 6/17/1941.
The article, his take on the impending American involvement in World War II, contrasts the ideal of freedom to the realities of everyday American life.
As we read it, it is hard not to reflect on where this country may or may not have made progress in the last 74 years, and where in fact the clock is even being turned backwards.
Here is one excerpt (p. 9):
Our primary problem is a domestic problem, a problem concerned with the processes of democracy at home. We need jobs. We need shelter. We urgently need an enormous increase in health, school, recreational, and other facilities. We need to see the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution enforced. We need to see the Bill of Rights translated into living reality. We need to see anti-lynching bills and anti-poll tax bills passed by the Congress of the United States. We need to see Congress guarantee the right of labor to organize, to bargain collectively, to strike in defense of their hard won standards of living when they deem it
So true still, most of it. No political analyst could say it more clearly. There is a lot to be said in favor of all of us, and students in particular, reading creative literature at least as much as the “factual exposition” type of writing that seems lately to have become privileged in our education system.