Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi. His grandfather had been born a slave, his mother Ella was a teacher and his father (before he abandoned his family) was a sharecropper.
Wright was six years old when his mother took sole responsibility for him and his younger brother Leon. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they were forced to live in the type of poverty portrayed in Native Son. Although his mother found work as a cook, the family was forced to move between relatives in Arkansas and Mississippi, so Wright could only attend school sporadically. However, he bought books with money he made working part-time jobs and escaped the sad aspects of his life by reading voraciously.
In 1920, Wright moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with his grandmother while he attended junior high school. And sadly, although he graduated as valedictorian, he was afterwards forced to drop out of high school after only a few weeks to support his family.
Next, the family moved to the South side of Chicago, the primary setting of Native Son, where he worked as a postal worker, an insurance salesman and a hospital orderly. It was here that he joined the Communist Party in 1933. Soon after, he began writing poetry. He also joined the American Writers Congress, under the auspices of the Communist Party.
In 1937, he moved to Harlem, New York, where he became the Harlem editor for the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper. He published his first book, Uncle Tom's Children the following year. Shortly after, he moved to Brooklyn where he finished Native Son, a book which shocked both black and white America to its core.
The highly suspenseful novel, which became the first book by an African- American writer to enjoy widespread success, placed Wright firmly in the American literary limelight, selling over 200,000 in its first month. In it, Wright presents the figure of Bigger Thomas, the lone African-American male backed into a corner by bigotry and intolerance over lack of opportunities.
Black Boy (1945), his second book, made Wright even more successful. By then he had left the Communist Party and had moved to France where he joined the literary society of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein and Andre Gide. In time, he distanced himself from these associates.
In the 1930's, Wright married Rose Dimah Meadman. After they divorced in the 1940's he married fellow leftist Ellen Poplar with whom he had two daughters.
Richard Wright emerged as a writer during a period of extreme racial oppression and economic depression. Although Wright achieved great literary acclaim, over time he came to be harshly criticized by African-American scholars for his descriptions of black life in America, and for his stereotypical depiction of black women.
Plagued by financial difficulties and ill health, on November 28, 1961, Wright died of a heart attack at the age of 52.