Richard Wright was known as one of the most influential African American writers of the 20th century. His daughter, Julia, recently spoke with the press about how when they were younger it was difficult for her father to talk to her about race, especially because of how heavy and graphic of a topic it was/is.
“It’s like soldiers who go to war and then come back. They don’t always find the way to share what they did at war with their family. My father didn’t really know how to share the pain of race with me.”
Julia is 79 now, and told the media that Richard had other ways of educating her on racial issues within this country. “He would leave the doors of his office open so that I could have free range of his books and read everything I wanted to read, and that’s how I picked up some clues on what he was going through as a Black man.”
Her dedication to her father’s work is what’s led to the release of an unseen Wright novel that was rejected by publishers about 80 years ago. The book is called ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ and focuses on race and police violence; something that couldn’t be more relevant today with the recent verdict being made for the trial of Derek Chauvin.
“The novel follows Fred Daniels, an African American man framed by police for a double murder he did not commit. He is beaten and tortured until he confesses but escapes into the city’s sewer system, beginning a journey into a modern underworld,” according to the Guardian.
Wright was known for his famous 1940 novel ‘Native Son,’ but he considered ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ to be his best work yet, in fact at one point he claimed: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration. But publishers turned it down. Its uncompromising portrayal of police brutality may have rendered it untouchable.”
Julia was still in her mother’s womb when Richard was writing this novel, so she jokingly refers to it as her “twin.”
“The publishers of the day were discounting black readership and they didn’t want to unsettle white readership. Discomfort is too gentle a word. I think they were afraid of what they read in those pages. It was too close to the truth. So it was a no brainer. This had to come out.”
“The George Floyd video that little girl, Darnella Frazier, made on her cell phone also is too close to the truth. It has the same symbolic value that those pages on police brutality my father wrote so many years ago still have. People don’t want to see it.” Julia took the novel to the Library of America multiple times, and “then when George Floyd happened, I knocked at their door again and said ‘look here, let’s do it, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it. And they said yes.”
The novel is being published this week and will include an essay by Wright, and an afterword written by his grandson, Malcolm Wright.
“I am very fulfilled. This has been a 10-year uphill wait for it to come to light and out of the darkness, out of the underground, literally, of those unpublished papers. I think it’s going to change a lot for his reputation. People tend to think of Wright as a bit of a naturalistic disaster or a simple writer of protest novels but he’s so much more complex and people are going to have to reassess him with this book,” explained a joyful Julia.
“He would have been very bittersweet about it. My father was so much in advance of his times that sometimes what he wrote was not recognized or was denied because it was too far ahead. So he wouldn’t say, ‘I told you so,’ because he was too kind a person to do that, but he would sort of chuckle and take his pipe and smoke placidly and say, ‘Well’. Almost what Malcolm X said: ‘Chickens come home to roost, don’t they?’”
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.