Richard Wright

(4 September 1908 – 28 November 1960)


“Typecast as the voice of blackness, he found freedom in 17 syllables.”
(by Anthony Walton, from The Oxford American, March-April 2000)


Richard WrightRichard Wright was an American author of sometimes controversial novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially those involving the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Literary critics believe his work helped change race relations in the United States in the mid-20th century.


Richard Nathaniel Wright was born into extreme poverty on 4 September 1908 on a plantation outside Natchez, Mississippi. His autobiography, Black Boy, covers the interval in his life from 1912 until May 1936. His childhood in Mississippi as well as in Memphis, TN, and Elaine, AR shaped his lasting impressions of American racism. At the age of 15, while in eighth grade, Wright published his first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre", in the local Black newspaper Southern Register. Wright moved to Chicago in 1927 and in late 1933, he formally joined the Communist Party and as a revolutionary poet he wrote numerous proletarian poems for The New Masses and other left-wing periodicals. By 1935, Wright had completed his first novel, Cesspool, published as Lawd Today (1963), and in January 1936 his story "Big Boy Leaves Home" was accepted for publication in New Caravan. He then went on to write such American classics as 12 Million Black Voices (1941) and Black Boy (1945) as well as Native Son (1940). In a recent article in the American magazine Utne Reader the writer Anthony Walton compared Wright to be “one of the first gangsta rappers, spreading the news about the bad brothers in the inner city and what they were prepared to do-to black folks, to white folks, to anyone who got in their way-in their search for personal liberation or, if not that, then nihilistic self-assertion.

Wright had contracted amoebic dysentery on a visit to Africa in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health deteriorated over the next three years. He died in Paris on 28 November 1960, of a heart attack at the age of 52. He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. However, Wright's daughter Julia claimed that her father was assassinated. A literary and cultural hero, Wright also became a threat to national security—or so said the FBI, the CIA, and others who saw him as a communist and rabble-rouser. Wright spent much of his life in conflict with these groups, hence the rumours surrounding his that his death.

It was during these last few years of his life that he discovered haiku. Over a short period of time Wright lost his mum, a couple of close friends and on top of that he was deeply affected by the sudden death of Albert Camus whom he admired highly. Wright was introduced to haiku in the summer of 1959 when he borrowed R. H. Blyth's four volumes of Haiku from a young South African and began his intensive research of the Japanese masters. Haiku became the calm eye within during this stormy period of grief, suffering, and chaos. During the final months of his life, Wright practically lived and breathed haiku. In 1960, less than a year before his death, Wright selected into a manuscript, under the title This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner, 817 out of the about four thousand haiku he had composed since the summer of the previous year. This compelling collection of Wright’s poetry was later published in 1998 called Haiku: This Other World (Arcade, 1998) and re-issued in 2012. The magnitude of Wright’s output is very impressive for a writer plagued by illness and political surveillance. It is now commonplace to claim that Wright’s experiments with the Japanese poetic genre were therapeutic, but there must have been something beyond therapy that motivated his deep involvement with haiku. Wright’s haiku begin to fill in the missing part of his legacy. They reveal a side of Wright that the public never saw. The poems reflect Wright’s emotions, not what the publishing world, with its pre-set categories think of what a black man is capable of thinking or writing – and this is a struggle that most black artists and perhaps all artists face.

Yoshinobu Hakutani, who is one of the leading experts on haiku in the United States and an esteemed Richard Wright scholar, edited the first edition of Wright’s haiku collection, along with Robert L. Tener, and provided invaluable notes and an afterword. In Richard Wright and Racial Discourse (pp. 261-91. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996), Hakutani writes: “The four thousand haiku Wright wrote at the end of his life were a reflection of changes that had occurred during his career as a writer. But, more important, the new point of view and the new mode of expression he acquired in writing haiku suggest that Wright was convinced more than ever that materialism and its corollary, greed, were the twin culprits of racial conflict. Just as his fiction and nonfiction directly present this conviction, his haiku as racial discourse indirectly express the same conviction.”



Wright received several different literary awards during his lifetime including the Spingarn Medal in 1941, the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939, and the Story Magazine Award in 1938.


Selected haiku:


Keep straight down this block,

Then turn right where you will find

A peach tree blooming.


From this skyscraper,

all the bustling streets converge

towards the spring sea


Venturing outdoors,

The children walk timidly,

Respecting the snow.


A soft wind at dawn

Lifts one dry leaf and lays it

Upon another.


All right, You Sparrows;

The sun has set and you can now

Stop your chattering!


Sparrow's excrement

Becomes quickly powdery

On sizzling pavements.


On winter mornings

The candle shows faint markings

Of the teeth of rats.


The day is so long

That even noisy sparrows

Fall strangely silent.


An apple blossom

Trembling on a sunlit branch

From the weight of bees.


Leaving its nest,

The sparrow sinks a second,

Then opens its wings.


In the setting sun,

Each tree bud is clinging fast

To drying raindrops.


Crying and crying,

Melodious strings of geese

Passing a graveyard.


Standing patiently,

The horse grants the snowflakes

A home on his back.


Like a spreading fire,

Blossoms leap from tree to tree

In a blazing spring.


They smelt like roses;

But when I put on the light,

They were violets.


The Christmas season:

A whore is painting her lips

Larger than they are.


A spring sky so clear

That you feel you are seeing

Into tomorrow.


My cigarette glows

Without my lips touching it, —

A steady spring breeze.


The sport stadium:

Every seat is taken

By whirling snowflakes.


With solemnity

The magpies are dissecting

A cat's dead body.


Burning out its time,

And timing its own burning,

One lonely candle.


(HAIKU – This Other World, Arcade Publishing, 1998)