What Does It Mean When A Room Full of African-American Collegians Have No Idea of Who Richard Wright Is? And What Should We Do About It?

There are moments when I am working with my African-American students that a sudden almost unending sadness overcomes my soul. The only thing that I can liken the feeling to is seeing the children of negligent, drug-addicted, physically abusive parents that from all indications regret the date that their child was born.

I recently experienced such a moment while speaking about the Great Depression, particularly the rise of Communists within America’s borders. I peppered the discussion regarding Herbert Hoover, FDR, and Communist Party USA with references to African-American issues and concerns. I have found this moment to be the perfect opportunity to discuss Richard Wright’s Native Son; a book that I would argue is the quintessential Great Depression era novel.

I was prepared to discuss the nuances’ of Bigger Thomas and draw what to me are innumerable corollaries between the Great Depression and contemporary society in regards to how larger forces often work to shutter opportunities for African-American males throughout the nation. To my shock and horror, not a single student had ever heard of Richard Wright or any of his classic tomes such as: Black Boy, Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Children, White Man, Listen! or Lawd Today.

It would be a gross understatement to say that I was absolutely floored that an entire room of African-American collegians had never heard of one of the greatest writers to put pen-to-paper and discuss the American racial experience.

As I am certain that you can imagine, after the class ended, I retreated to my office and pondered the following queries. What does the fact that every one of my African-American students were ignorant to who Richard Wright was really mean? How far does their collective ignorance extend? Who or what is responsible for what can only be termed comprehensive ignorance of African-American literature, history, politics, culture, etc.?

Quite possibly the most frightening aspect of all is that when one’s life is informed by multiple illiteracies, there is practically no escape from ignorance because the gross lack of understanding of history, extends into politics and of course the two aforementioned illiteracies lead directly to the development of a cultural appetite that voraciously consumes reality-television caricatures of Black life while simultaneously finding legitimate cultural expressions such as an August Wilson play or Terence Blanchard’s Over There unappealing to say the least.

The lack of knowledge of self dooms the vast majority of African-Americans in their pursuit of building what I term a “life worth living”.

So what does it mean that my students have no idea of who Richard Wright is? I am actually uncertain of what it means.

There is a part of me that sides with Malcolm X’s admonishment of ‘only a fool would allow his oppressor to educate his children’ and therefore the blame should be placed before our community as it has allowed our children to become mired in a public education system that has never even pretended to provide a culturally relevant education, while there is another part of me that feels the blame game will only delay our need to address the reality that educating our children is best left to the African-American community.

Ultimately, it matters little what it means and matters much how we address this matter as a community. It was this reality that led me to not only speak about Richard Wright and Native Son in one of my classes, but also assign it to them as an assignment. Such an action may not totally solve their problem of being informed by multiple interlocking illiteracies, however, it is at least a small step toward helping them recover their righteous minds.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

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