Honoring Richard Wright

Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, shares her latest pick from a shortlist of America's most influential black writers. Today's writer is Richard Wright, author of Native Son and the first black author to make a living writing books.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now, we've got the discerning literary palette of Farah Jasmine Griffin. All this month, Farah has been presenting her picks for the six most influential African-American writers. And today, she unveils number four on her list. She says he's the first black novelist to actually make his living as a writer. And his name is Richard Wright.

Professor FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University): He came out like a comet. Wright was the first black author, who could make his living as a writer. And his novel, "Native Son," was read by a diverse audience of people and influenced countless writers.

Bigger Thomas, who is the protagonist of "Native Son," was a character like none we'd ever seen. He was a character feared by white Americans. But he was also a character who a great many black Americans did not like either. During a time when black Americans fell victim to horrible stereotypes, some writers felt that we are to only put forward images of our best, the best representative of the race. Others felt that Bigger Thomas did not really represent the humanity of black people, that he was a figure who believed everything white people had said about him, internalized those meanings. Richard Wright said he created him because he wanted us to be afraid.

My favorite Richard Wright book is "12 Million Black Voices." And I think I like it so much because it differs a great deal from "Native Son." It's a kind of lyrical, cultural history where Wright expresses a love and compassion for, as well as a solidarity with, black people in the most lyrically beautiful prose that he's written.

For me, Richard Wright is a very, very difficult writer. I find myself growing very angry with him when I read some of the things that he's written about black women, and yet I come back to him time and time again. It's sort of you don't throw out the baby with the bath water. He gave me a series of tools, analytical tools, for understanding what the experience of black people had been in the United States from "12 Million Black Voices."

That is why we black folk laugh and sing when we are alone together. There is nothing, no ownership or lust for power that stands between us and our kin. And we reckon kin, not as others do, but down to the ninth and 10th cousin. And for reason we cannot explain, we are mighty proud when we meet a man, woman, or child who, in talking to us, reveals that the blood of our brood has somehow entered his veins.

Because our eyes are not blinded by the hunger for possessions, we are a tolerant folk. A black mother who stands in the sagging door of her ginger bread shack may weep as she sees her children straying off into the unknown world. But no matter what they may do, no matter what happens to them, no matter what crimes they may commit, no matter what the world may think of them, that mother always welcomes them back with an irreducibly human feeling that stands above the claims of law or property.

Our scale of values differs from that of the world from which we have been excluded. Our shame is not its shame. And our love is not its love.

CHIDEYA: Farah Jasmine Griffin is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

We invite you to weigh in with your top picks and go to our blog and write to your heart's content. That's at nprnewsandviews.org.

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