Richard Wright and Native Son

Professor gears up for 100th birthday of ‘Native Son’ author

By Sarah Bryan Miller

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Author Richard Wright (1908-1960) is coming up on his centenary next year. That means that Jerry Ward’s work is moving into high gear.

Wright, born in Natchez, Miss., was best known for his novel “Native Son” and autobiography “Black Boy.” He did most of his important work from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, devoting much of his time to writing haiku toward the end. He died of a heart attack in his adopted city, Paris. His carefully wrought sentences are often long and dense by today’s standards, but his voice was striking in his time.

Dr. Jerry W. Ward Jr. is a professor of English and African World Studies at Dillard University in New Orleans. Born in Washington, he lived in Mississippi from age 6; before going to Dillard, he taught at Tugaloo College in Jackson, Miss., for 32 years.

At the moment, Ward is awash in Wright centennial projects, including monthly discussions in Natchez, and coediting the Richard Wright Encyclopedia for Greenwood Press.

“I hope it will be out before the end of 2008,” he says. He’s also coediting “The Cambridge History of African American Literature,” due in 2009. “But I’m really immersed between now and 2008,” he says. “Wright seems to have total control of my energies.”

Q: Have you seen a lot of changes in students’ knowledge and appreciation of African-American literature?

A: Yes, I have. When I first started teaching in 1970, the students were very anxious to have courses on black literature. This was the whole period of the civil rights movement, which dovetailed with the black arts movement. Students were very excited and wanted these courses.

Now, there’s still interest, but the passion for it is not there. They complain that some of the work is very hard (to read). They’d rather read street literature, urban literature — I call them “romances.”

Q: Is it as hard as getting people to read Henry James?

A: Not Henry James. (When) people read him, they get kind of prune-faced. Maybe Norman Mailer, he’s not as hard, but we have to know all this background.

Q: In his heyday, Wright was controversial, in part, because of his outspoken communism. How is he viewed today?

A: The communism is no longer a real problem, anymore than the threat of communism is a problem anymore.

Q: Is Wright seen as a major American author or as a major African-American author?

A: When you’re dealing with literature, I think he’s really seen in both camps. But it’s under the rubric of African-American literature that he gets the most attention.

Back in the 1960s, Irving Howell said that “Native Son” was so important that when it was published, America was changed forever. This is really hyperbole, but that’s the kind of impact the novel had.

In 1938, he published a collection of stories, “Uncle Tom’s Children,” which won him a Guggenheim Fellowship. That was followed by the great success of “Native Son,” which created a national reputation. In 1940, when you consider where America was in racial terms, to have a black author with a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, to have a black author sell as well as he did, well, that was quite a phenomenon.

Q: What else did he do that was significant?

A: In 1941, he combined his very poetic text with (government) photos, “12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.” And in 1953, he published “The Outsider.” It’s a very powerful but difficult novel, because it is a novel of ideas.

You have to deal with existentialism, Wright’s critique of communism and fascism, the concept of the Superman from Nietzsche and Wright’s long-standing interest in Freudian psychology. It’s an interesting story, but with long passages of philosophy.

Q: It sounds like Ayn Rand.

A: It’s a little juicier than Ayn Rand.

Q: Rand’s pretty juicy in places.

A: Well, there’s lots of murder.

Q: Is the study of African-American literature becoming mainstream?

A: No, it’s becoming deeper, (reflecting) much of what’s happening. The whole cultural phenomenon of hip-hop, and how pervasive that has been — it has to do with fashion. It has to do with choices of behavior that almost seem to be from the Jazz Age: the misbehavior of the rich crowd. It’s part of some kind of cultural globalization.

When you begin to talk about African-American literature and culture, you begin to engage the whole notion of the African diaspora. What are the relations between people from the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States — how are they interacting? They’re not looking back to Africa. And they’re not looking at being absorbed.

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