Richard Wright - Black Boy

"He came like a sledgehammer, like a giant out of the mountain with a sledgehammer, writing with a sledgehammer..."
Historian John Henrik Clarke

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Wright's iconoclastic autobiography, Black Boy, Mississippi Educational Television and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) present the first in-depth look at the African-American writer who changed the face of American literature. When asked in 1945 why he wrote Black Boy, a harrowing account of his Southern childhood, Wright replied that he wanted to "give [his] tongue to voiceless Negro boys." Quoting Walt Whitman, he added, "Not until the sun ceases to shine on you will I disown you." Fifty years later, Richard Wright's passion for words is depicted in the first full-length documentary on his life. Richard Wright - Black Boy first aired on PBS on September 4, 1995 at 10:00 p.m. EDT (check local listings). September 4 marks the 87th anniversary of Wright's birth.

The program was awarded a 1994 Southeast Regional Emmy. The program was co-produced by the BBC and will air in the BBC series "Bookmark" this fall. Written, produced, and directed by Emmy-winner Madison Davis Lacy, the documentary chronicles Wright's struggle, overcoming poverty and fear to earn recognition as one of America's most important writers.

Producer Madison Davis Lacy, whose credits include Eyes on the Prize II, drew from hundreds of sources to reveal the persona of a man critics viewed as a literary genius. Three years in the making, Richard Wright - Black Boy skillfully intertwines dramatic excerpts from Wright's own work with historical footage and recollections from his daughter Julia as well as friends, associates, and fellow writers such as Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker Alexander.

"I was initially interested in pursuing Wright's expatriation, and the phenomenon of expatriation as a dynamic in African-American culture," says Lacy. "What I discovered was a self-taught literary genius of tremendous political conviction. At 19 years old, Wright told a friend, 'I want my life to count for something.' Somehow he was able to crystallize that determination and his understanding of racial oppression into a reason to write on behalf of himself and his people."

Born outside Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908, Wright was the son of an illiterate sharecropper. He developed his fascination with the power of words at an early age. His classmates at Jackson's Smith-Robertson School recall that he always had his head in a book. Reading reinforced his dissatisfaction with life in the segregated South and, like thousands of other African-Americans, he resolved to go north, to Chicago. He survived the Depression as a street-sweeper and a postal worker until he found encouragement to write from the Communist Party. Soon he was at the forefront of the "school for social protest" in Chicago, a literary movement which gave rise to a wealth of progressive literature. As Wright's popularity grew, so did the displeasure of Party officials intent upon influencing his writing, eventually causing him to break with the Party. He left Chicago in 1937 for New York where "he could get published," according to Margaret Walker Alexander. He published his first book, Uncle Tom's Children, to good reviews in 1938, but it was his second, Native Son, that brought Wright critical and public acclaim.

In 1940, Native Son soared to the top of the best-seller lists and became the first book by an African-American author to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. "His new book makes it clearer than ever that he has one of the most notable gifts in U.S. writing, black or white," claimed Time magazine. The public seemed to agree, sending the book to fourth place among fiction sales for the year.

Wright married for the second time in 1941 and weathered the war years in New York lecturing and writing his autobiography, Black Boy, published in 1945. Black Boy also became a runaway best seller, aided by a major photo spread in Life magazine. After the war, Wright, as a former Communist party member, became the subject of FBI monitoring and experienced overt acts of racial hostility. In 1946 Wright traveled to Paris and London, where he was welcomed by his American expatriate and European literary contemporaries. After his return to New York in early 1947, Wright decided to move his family to France where he felt he could write unimpeded by social and government interference. He never returned to the States, though he always considered himself an American.

Living in Europe, Wright's interests took on an expanding global view. He lectured and wrote a series of non-fiction essays and books reflecting on the position of race in a quickly changing post-war world; he took a particular interest in pan-African issues.

By the time of his sudden death in 1960 at the age of 52, Wright had irrevocably changed the principles governing African-American writing and left an indelible mark on the American imagination. His books still sell briskly and continue to be mainstays of high school and college literature and composition classes. "Wright was one of the people who made me conscious of the need to struggle," offers writer Amiri Baraka. In a 1963 essay on Wright, critic Irving Howe wrote, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever."

Wright biographer Constance Webb reflects, "He was a storyteller -- because he wrote these stories; but he also lived these stories." Prominent author Ralph Ellison, in his last filmed interview before his death in 1994, assessed, "I don't know whether he always knew where he was going, and I think that is a good sign because you don't just create a novel, you are created by it."

With original music by Randy Klein and R.L. Burnside and narration by actor J.A. Preston, Richard Wright - Black Boy recognizes one of America's most influential writers and effectively demonstrates his lifelong belief that "words can be weapons against injustice."

Richard Wright - Black Boy is a public television presentation of Mississippi Educational Television and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ford Foundation, Independent Television Service, the BBC, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Black Programming Consortium, the Southern Educational Communications Association, and the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi, Inc. Richard Wright - Black Boy is a co-production of Mississippi Educational Television and the BBC.

DVDs of RICHARD WRIGHT-BLACK BOY are available for purchase at California Newsreel,

For more information on Richard Wright - Black Boy contact ITVS at 51 Federal Street, Suite 401, San Francisco, CA 94107, call 415/356-8383, or email to

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