The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

In this two-part series, we look at two writers — Richard Wright and Walter Dean Myers — who explored what it feels like to be African-American in the United States.

Richard Wright i i
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Richard Wright
Getty Images

Read an excerpt of A Father's Law.

Watch a scene from the documentary, Richard Wright: Black Boy.

African-American author Richard Wright had a very different upbringing from his daughter, Julia. In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright described the neighborhood he lived in as a child as swarming with "rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors and children."

"Smoke obscured the vision and cinders drifted into the house, into our beds, into our kitchens, into our food; and a tarlike smell was always in the air," he wrote.

Just a generation later, his daughter grew up in a very different world; in the late 1940s, Wright moved the family to Paris, where Julia would later attend the Sorbonne.

It was in Paris that Julia first encountered her father's famous autobiography. She was 12 at the time, and she found Black Boy on the shelf one evening when her parents were at the theater.

"I really didn't want to read it. I maybe would have preferred a mystery," she recalls. "Then I went into the kitchen and took some chocolate caramels and went to bed with Black Boy and the chocolate caramels."

Here's some of what she read: By the time Wright was 12, he'd set fire to his mother's home, been sent to an orphanage and been lured into a Memphis bar and plied with liquor.

"When I got to the end of Chapter 2 and I read that he only had an orange for Christmas and that he sucked it slowly to make it last, I spit the caramels out," says Julia.

Richard Wright's story of his childhood made him one of America's most popular writers in the 1940s. In addition to Black Boy, which he dedicated to then 3-year-old Julia, he also wrote Native Son, a fictional account of a black youth in the segregated North.

Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an uneducated black man from Chicago who unintentionally kills a young white woman. Bigger is a study in contrasts: Strong, ignorant and angry, he's also confused, vulnerable and at a loss about how to deal with a racist society. Wright's novel makes Bigger into America's native son — the offspring of a nation's bigotry.

Julia has spent this year — the centennial of Richard Wright's birth — talking about A Father's Law, the book her father was writing when he died. It's about the relationship between generations. But now, a hundred years after Wright's birth, it seems that his books aren't as widely read as they used to be.

"You would be surprised at how many students don't know who Richard Wright is," says Latashia Wansley Clark, a student at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wright's hometown of Natchez, Miss. To mark the centennial of his birth, the college produced a documentary about his life and work.

"Actually, I'm 32 years old and I didn't know who Richard Wright was before I started this documentary," Wansley Clark says.

"It changed my life," she says. "I read the book and now I read books all the time, because of the impact that it had on me. It's like you're there with [Wright] as he's going on his journey."

Excerpt: A Father's Law

'A Father's Law'

Chapter One

He saw the dim image of the traffic cop make a right-face turn and fling out a white-gloved arm, signaling that the flow of cars from the east should stop and that those toward the south now had the right of way, and at the same instant he heard the cop's shrill whistle: Wrrrriiiiiieee . . .

Yes, that was a good rookie. He had made change-over in traffic smartly, the exact manner in which the Metropolitan Handbook for Traffic Policemen had directed. The footwork had been perfect and that impersonal look on his face certainly inspired confidence and respect. That's the way a policeman should work. Well done, Officer, he mumbled in his sleep as the officer now did a left-face turn, again flinging out his flashing white-gloved hand and sounding his whistle: Whreeeeeiiiiiee . . .

"Ruddy!"

"Hunh!"

"Ruddy! Wake up!"

Wrrrriiiiiieeeeee . . .

"Hunh? Hunh?"

"Ruddy, it's the telephone, darling!"

Wreeeiiieeeeee . . .

"Oh!"

"It's the telephone, Ruddy!"

"I'll get it, I'll get it," he mumbled, blinking his sleep-drugged eyes in the dark and fumbling with the bedcovers. He sat half up and sleep rushed over him in a wave, seeking to reclaim him. "This rush-hour traffic . . ." He sighed, his voice trailing off.

"Hunh? Ruddy, are you awake?"

"Hunh?"

"Darling, the telephone!"

Wreeeeeiiiiiii . . .

In one stride of consciousness, he conquered his sleep and pushed his feet to the floor, reached out to the bedside table and lifted the receiver. He cleared his throat and spoke professionally: "Captain Rudolph Turner, speaking."

A woman's sharp, crisp voice sang over the wire: "Ruddy, Mary Jane . . . Mary Jane Woodford."

"Yeah, Mary Jane. What is it? What's up?"

"Who is that, Ruddy?"

"Wait, Agnes. I'm trying to talk. Switch on the light."

"What was that?"

"I was talking to my wife, Mary Jane. Spill it. What's the trouble?"

"A message for you. The commissioner wants to see you at two o'clock," Mary Jane informed him. "So hustle up here. And don't wear your uniform."

"Two o'clock? Tonight?"

"Naw. This morning. It's past midnight now. And it's urgent."

"But what about?"

"I'm not the commissioner, Ruddy. You understood what I've said?"

"I got it."

"You sound like you were dead to the world."

"I was sleeping like a log. I was dreaming. I was coaching a rookie to direct traffic."

"Traffic? I bet it was flowing north and south! Ha, ha!"

"You dirty-minded gal!"

"Ha, ha! See you, Ruddy!"

Click!

He hung up and stared into space, vaguely aware that his wife had flooded the room with light.

"Who was that, Ruddy?"

"Mary Jane. The commissioner's secretary."

"Why in God's name is she calling you at this hour?"

"It's her duty, honey. I got to go in at the commissioner's at two . . ."

"Tonight?"

"It's morning, darling. It's urgent, she said."

"She shouldn't call you like that."

"She's doing what she's told."

"But she never called you before at this hour."

"I know. Don't know what this can mean."

"Didn't you ask her?"

"Yeah. I did. But she won't tell."

"Well, I never. You're a captain. They shouldn't rouse you out of your sleep like that."

"Something's up," he said, idly scratching his chest, vaguely sensing the vivid dream he had had fading from his mind. Was it the Maybrick case? No—that was settled. And don't wear your uniform! "She said I was not to come in in uniform."

"Why?"

"The commissioner's order, she said."

"That sounds fishy to me."

He turned and looked down at his wife's dimpled, peach-colored face, the deep brown eyes clouded and heavy with sleep.

"Now, Agnes, don't you be a little kitten and start scratching at Mary Jane. She's not trying to lure me out of the house for her sake . . ."

"I didn't say that," Agnes mumbled sulkily.

He glanced at his wristwatch; it was twenty minutes past midnight. He leaned over to his wife and lifted her head with his left palm and kissed her. Gently, he eased her face from him. "You go right back to sleep. I'll get dressed."

"When will you get back?"

"I really don't know, honey. Something's up. It's been years since I got a midnight call to come in . . . say, what's that?"

"What?"

"That noise? Jesus . . . Tommy's typing. And at this hour. Doesn't he ever sleep?"

"He's studying for his exams, Ruddy."

"Goddammit, he's overdoing it. A boy his age ought to be sleeping."

"He sleeps enough. You'll call me as soon as you know?"

"Sure thing, kitten."

"And no uniform? Maybe they've got a plainclothes assignment for you and—"

"Naw. Those guys are a dime a dozen."

"Maybe you're being assigned to guard some bigwig?"

"Could be. But they've got hundreds of guys to do that stuff. And I'm the man who assigns 'em. Couldn't be that." He rose, yawned, and stretched. "I won't wear my uniform, but I sure will take my gat."

"You do that," Agnes said.

"I'll shower," he said, turning as a knock came on the door.

"Dad."

"Yeah, Tommy. What is it?"

"Come on, Tommy," Agnes called.

The door swung in and a tall, slender brown youth of eighteen poked his head and half of his body around the doorjamb.

"I heard the phone and heard you two talking," Tommy began.

"I'm summoned to headquarters," Ruddy said lightly, poking his feet into his house shoes. "You still up?"

"Cramming," Tommy said, twisting his lips in a self-effacing smile.

"You ought to get your sleep, son," Ruddy said. "When I was your age, I was either playing baseball or chasing gals."

"He knows what he wants to do," Agnes said.

"A big crime case coming up, Dad?" Tommy asked. He now showed his right hand, which held a smoldering cigarette. He lifted it to his lips and drew smoke deep into his lungs.

"Don't know, son. Got to report at two. Say, you look damned tired," Ruddy scolded softly.

Excerpted from A Father's Law, by Richard Wright. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

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A Father's Law
A Father's Law

by Richard Wright

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