It seems fitting that on this day honoring Martin Luther King, I would, while browsing at Barnes and Noble, chance upon a recently issued edition of a heretofore unpublished manuscript of one of America’s greatest writers and read in the blurb about this wordsmith that he stands among the great black writers.
To be sure, Richard Wright was a black writer, but why did the publishers of A Father’s Law seek to limit his importance? Wright ranks among the great American authors who was able to write about his experience as a black man growing up in the South and later moving to Chicago such that he wrote not just about that experience but about the human experience.
Were the publishers (to paraphrase Dr. King) seeking to judge him by the color of his skin and not the universality of his themes?
His novel Native Son ranks along with Melville’s Moby Dick, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Cather’s My Ántonia and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter as one of the greatest American novels. His Memoir Black Boy is perhaps the most powerful written by an American.
Do people call Truman Capote a great American writer or a great gay writer?
Heck, we can even dispense with the adjective describing Wright’s nationality. He was simply put a great writer, the power of whose works endures long after his death.
About a decade ago, when I was reading Wright’s work, I rushed off to the Borders near me (then in Northern Virginia) to buy another book, but I couldn’t find any of his writings in the “Fiction & Literature” section. It struck me as strange that a bookstore with that large an inventory would not have a single work by this great author.
When I asked, I learned that they shelved his works in the African-American section. By that logic, a bookstore out here would shelve John Steinbeck in the Calfornia section.
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great American, Richard Wright was a great writer. Each achieved his greatness by drawing on his experiences as a black man in a segregated society, then found a means to transcend racial difference to address universal theme.
We will truly have learned from Dr. King’s positive vision if we come to see Richard Wright as a great American writer and place his works where they belong, alongside Cather, Hawthorne, Melville, Steinbeck, other great American writers.