The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son' A century after Richard Wright's birth, his books still resonate — both with his daughter, Julia, and with a new generation of fans, some of whom are just discovering the author.
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The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

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The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

The Legacy Of A Nation's 'Native Son'

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Over the next two mornings we'll be looking at two writers who explored and explained what it feels like to be African-American in the United States. Richard Wright wrote his most famous books, "Native Son" and Black Boy," in the 1940s. Walter Dean Myers is writing about being young and black today, which leads to a story explored by NPR's Juan Williams. It's the way that one generation of black Americans tells its stories to the next.

JUAN WILLIAMS: This is how Richard Wright described where he lived as a boy almost 100 years ago.

Unidentified Man: The neighborhood swarmed 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.

WILLIAMS: That's an actor reading from Richard Wright's book, "Black Boy."

Just one generation later, Wright's daughter, Julia Wright, grew up in a very different world.

Ms. JULIA WRIGHT: When I was 12 years old, my father and my mother had gone to the theater, and we were living in a beautiful apartment in Paris.

WILLIAMS: Richard Wright had moved the family to Paris in the late '40s. Julia Wright attended the Sorbonne. One night she picked up her famous father's first book, based on his childhood in Mississippi, almost reluctantly.

Ms. WRIGHT: And I went into my father's work room and took "Black Boy" down from the shelf. I really didn't want to read it. I maybe would have preferred a mystery story or something, and then I went into the kitchen and took some chocolate caramels and went to bed with "Black Boy" and the chocolate caramels.

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

Ms. WRIGHT: And 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.

WILLIAMS: Richard Wright's story of his own childhood made him one of America's most popular writers in the 1940s. He wrote "Black Boy," based on his own life, and "Native Son," a fictional account of a black boy in the segregated North. Both were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections.

The character Bigger Thomas from "Native Son" was an uneducated black man from Chicago who ends up killing a young white woman. Bigger is strong, ignorant, angry, but he's also confused, vulnerable, at a loss about how to deal with a racist society. Wright's made Bigger Thomas, a black man, into America's native son, the offspring of a nation's bigotry.

WILLIAMS: Well, your father, of course first became famous for publication of "Native Son" and then "Black Boy."

Ms. WRIGHT: Yes.

WILLIAMS: The inscription in the copy of "Black Boy" that I'm holding is dedicated to Julia and Ellen. You were three years old when this book was first published.

Ms. WRIGHT: I never knew it was dedicated to me. In fact, this was my father's position: He wanted us kids to discover who he was. He was not going to impose who he was on us.

WILLIAMS: Wright's message to the next generation, whether his own daughter or school kids, was simply found on the printed page. Julia Wright has spent this year, the centennial of Richard Wright's birth, talking about a new book her father was writing when he died. It's called "A Father's Law," about the relationship between generations.

Let me ask you, Ms. Wright, Richard Wright, your dad, had a very tense relationship with his own father. He returned a few times to Mississippi to see him, but by that time Richard Wright had been living in Paris.

His father was a sharecropper in Natchez. Did he ever talk to you about his father?

Ms. WRIGHT: No, he did not have time, and he did not think I was mature enough, but he knew by then that I had been reading his books, and he waited for the questions. Whenever I asked, I got an answer. If I didn't ask, he would wait.

What I see is we must allow our children to become who they are meant to be. Open the doors to them. Open the doors for them. Give them what we can. Give them books, the messages. These are things that will keep us together.

WILLIAMS: Richard Wright passed along the story of his life in his books. That world seems remote today, and those books aren't as widely read as they used to be.

Ms. LATASHIA WANSLEY CLARK (Student): You would be surprised about how many students don't know who Richard Wright really is. Actually, I'm 33 years old, and I didn't know who Richard Wright was before I started this documentary.

WILLIAMS: Latashia Wansley Clark is a student in Natchez, Mississippi. She was never much of a reader until she discovered that Richard Wright grew up nearby. To mark the centennial of his birth, the students at Copiah-Lincoln Community College produced a documentary about Richard Wright's life and work.

Ms. CLARK: And oh my goodness, it changed my life. I read the book, and now I just - I read books all the time now, more than I did before, because of the impact that it had on me, that you can - it's like you're there with him as he is going on his journey, and it was awesome.

WILLIAMS: Well, what was so - what had such impact you? You said it changed your life. What made that impression?

Ms. CLARK: Yes, it really did, but because he - as a child, he knew that he wanted to change the way people thought. As a child, the things that he went through as a child are the hunger, and you would think a lot - what you read in the book, you would think, oh, he's hungry because he's not eating. He was hungry to get out and let people know really what was going on in Mississippi, what the African-American generation was going through, in "Black Boy."

WILLIAMS: The story that one generation passes to another continues. One boy who read Richard Wright was the writer Walter Dean Myers.

Mr. WALTER DEAN MYERS (Author): What I wanted to show was a duality of character more clearly than Wright had, because when I was a kid, if there was a fight, I would look for it, try to find it, but when I wasn't doing that, I was a book person.

WILLIAMS: Tomorrow I'll speak with Myers as he tries to reach the next generation through his writing. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt of "A Father's Law" at NPR.org.

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