“An Unseen Light”: On the History of Black Memphis

By Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney | Black Perspectives

Richard Wright had to leave Memphis. Jim Crow was a cruel riddle, asking terrible questions with no good answers. By 1927, he had spent his nineteen years on earth in a long wandering loop through the South, conducting a futile search for a better life. The system of white supremacy dictated that African Americans lived behind masks, hiding their frustrations and aspirations.

His escape came through books. He read H.L. Mencken, and Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis, and though these whites described alien worlds, they seemed to yearn for a better America. So Wright boarded a train for Chicago, with those novels and essays serving as an inspiration, “like a tinge of warmth from an unseen light.”

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