University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute Celebrates Centennial of Author Richard Wright's Birth

April 3, 2008 — "Juvenile Delinquent Becomes Famous Writer" — that's how one critic described author Richard Wright.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia will celebrate and explore the life and work of this influential author during a two-day celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of Richard Wright's birth on Thursday, April 10 and Friday, April 11. All events, free and open to the public, will be held in the Harrison Institute-Small Special Collections Library Auditorium.

The celebration begins on Thursday evening with a theatrical performance directed by University of Virginia drama professor Theresa Davis. The performance is a composition of essays, original works, poems, monologues and excerpts from the stage and screen adaptations of "Native Son." Students from Davis' "African-American Theatre" course will present "A Collage of Wright: Words as Weapons" at 7:30 p.m.

On April 11, a symposium featuring nationally renowned scholars and critics will highlight both familiar and less well-known aspects of Wright's life and work, from the best-selling "Native Son" to his little-studied photography and later writings based on his extensive travels in Europe, Asia and Africa.                     

Speakers at the symposium, which goes from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., include Arnold Rampersad, who edited critical anthologies of Wright's books and who recently published "Ralph Ellison: A Biography"; Maren Stange, author of "Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures" and "Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks"; and Joyce Ann Joyce, author of "Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy." Other symposium participants include U.Va. faculty members and graduate students Lotta Lofgren, Marlon Ross and Brian Roberts from the English department, and Melvin Butler from the music department. 

"Since his death in 1960, Wright's work has influenced generations of novelists and profoundly shaped the study of American literature," said Deborah McDowell, U.Va. English professor and director of the Woodson Institute.

Wright's life and writing — which included 18 published books — spanned remarkable geographical and intellectual terrain. Born on a plantation near Natchez, Miss. to a sharecropper and his wife, a schoolteacher, Wright spent his childhood living with various relatives across the state. In 1927, in search of work, he moved to Chicago, where he became involved with the Communist Party. After moving to Harlem in the late 1930s, he continued to work and write for the party.

While achieving favorable notice as a writer when he published his first book, the short story collection, "Uncle Tom's Children," in 1938, it was nothing to compare with the success of "Native Son," the novel that brought him national prominence and critical acclaim. 

As critic Irving Howe put it, "The day 'Native Son' appeared, American culture was changed forever."

After a break with the Communist Party and the publication of his autobiography, "Black Boy," in 1945, Wright moved with his wife and daughters to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life. His later fiction and non-fiction were deeply informed by his interest in existential philosophy, his friendship with Jean Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as his travels in Africa and Asia.

By the time of his sudden death in 1960 at the age of 52, Wright had irrevocably changed the principles governing African-American writing and left an indelible mark on the American imagination. His books still sell briskly and continue to be mainstays of high school and college literature and composition classes.

The symposium is co-sponsored by the Office for Diversity and Equity, the English department and the provost's office. The program schedule follows. For information, contact

Richard Wright at 100! A Celebratory Symposium
Harrison Institute-Small Special Collections Library Auditorium

Thursday, April 10

5:30 p.m.        Reception

7:30 p.m.         Performance: “A Collage of Wright”
            Directed by Drama Professor Teresa Davis
Friday, April 11

8:30 a.m.        Breakfast

9:30 a.m.        Morning Session
•    Lotta Lofgren, Professor of English, University of Virginia
•    Maren Stange, Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences, Cooper Union
•    Brian Roberts, PhD Candidate in English, University of Virginia

12:30 p.m.        Lunch

1:30 p.m.        Afternoon Session
•    Joyce Ann Joyce, Professor of English, Temple University
•    Marlon Ross, Professor of English, University of Virginia
•    Arnold Rampersad, Professor of Humanities, Stanford University
•    Melvin Butler, Professor of Music, University of Virginia
6:00 p.m.        Reception