Mississippi made him, but Chicago made him a writer. It was Chicago – with its bright churn of possibilities and its darker realities – that transformed Richard Wright from a shy Southern kid into a popular and internationally acclaimed author.
Chicago broke his heart, but it gave him his mission: to illuminate the dehumanizing effects of racial prejudice in 20th century America.
That is why, according to officials at the U.S. Postal Service, when a new stamp honoring Richard Wright (1908-1960) was commissioned, they decided that the stamp’s background simply had to be the South Side of Chicago, where Wright lived and worked during a crucial, formative decade.
And when a location was needed for the public ceremony Thursday at which the stamp will be unveiled, that was a snap: Again, it had to be Chicago.
In fact, in a touch as satisfying as the period at the end of a beautiful sentence, the event will occur at the post office of the same name at which Wright – as a brilliant and ambitious 19-year-old, fresh off the train from Memphis – was hired in 1928 to haul and sort mail.
The current main post office is across the street from the building at which Wright worked; the new structure was completed in 1997.
The author of “Native Son” (1940) and “Black Boy” (1945) would go on to live in cities such as New York and Paris, but it was Chicago that turned him into the restless literary artist and fearless truth-teller he became.
“We went back and forth about what the background would be,” said Kadir Nelson, the artist who created the Wright stamp, from his studio in San Diego. “It was either going to be the South or Chicago. Chicago just made the most sense.”
Nelson used a 1945 photo of Wright, and another photo of Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, to create the stamp, which will sell for 61 cents for use on a 2-ounce letter.
Debbie Levy, author of a 2007 biography of Wright for young people, said, “He was only in Chicago for 10 years, but his experiences in Chicago definitely shaped him and shaped his work.
“Many of the really important moments of his life happened in Chicago,” she added from her home in Maryland. Levy’s husband is a Chicago native, and her son attends Northwestern University.
Wright came to Chicago in December 1927. He was sick of the prejudice that had dogged him in the South, both in his native Mississippi and in Memphis, where he had gone to work at age 17. He was outraged at the systemic racism known as Jim Crow, fed up with the insults and the lack of opportunity. So he came North. The North, he had read, was different. AfricanAmericans had a chance in the North, a chance for a fair shot, a chance to make something of themselves. He settled on the South Side.
Alas, Wright was quickly disillusioned, Levy noted. “Even in Chicago, he found, there was still great segregation, still great disadvantage to black people.”
Out of his frustration and anger, Wright crafted “Native Son” – a fierce, angry, powerful work of fiction that became the first book by an African-American to be a best seller, and the first to be selected by the Bookof- the-Month Club. As literary critic Irving Howe wrote, “The day ‘Native Son’ appeared, American culture was changed forever.”
The novel’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, became one of the most vivid and indelible characters ever created by an American author – a designation that cut both ways, as Wright found out.
Thomas was a hulking murderer, a dangerous thug whose response to the racism that crimped his life was to lash out.
Wright’s point was that America’s racism would produce more Bigger Thomases, unless changes were made. Yet some critics – black and white – believed that an evil, violent black AfricanAmerican only inflamed racial prejudices. Why not, they argued, present a loving, hardworking African-American?
But that was not Wright’s vision. It was not his purpose.
He wrote what he felt and what he saw, and what he saw and felt was a virulent strain of racism coursing through American culture. In 1933, he joined the Communist Party. Later he would renounce communism, but his disillusionment with America lingered. He moved to Paris in 1946. In 1960, he died there.
“He was a deep thinker and quite complicated,” Levy said.
“His characters are sometimes difficult to love. Yet Wright himself was charming and soft-spoken.”
Wright’s best-known books – “Native Son” and his autobiography, “Black Boy” – have a furious power matched by few other literary works. Terry McCaffrey, manger of stamp development for the postal service and a longtime admirer of “Native Son,” said he was “thrilled” when the 12-member Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee chose Wright.
“Just before we started work on the stamp,” McCaffrey recalled from his office in Virginia, “I found a first edition of ‘Native Son’ at an antique shop. I really treasure that.”
Wright is the 25th American author to be honored with a stamp. The literary lineup began in 1979 with John Steinbeck and includes writers such as Herman Melville, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin.
But there is a special quality to Wright’s life and work, a kind of relentless intensity that turned sorrow into poetry, that turned the South Side of Chicago into a literary landmark.
“These are human stories,” mused Nelson, whose work often focuses on the African-American experience, of Wright’s books, “that really ring true today.”
The Richard Wright stamp will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Main Post Office, 433 W. Harrison St. Wright scholars will attend, and the event is free.
© 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.