English, Department of


Date of this Version



Paper presented at “The Wor[l]ds of Richard Wright: Native Son and Expatriate. A Centennial Remembrance of Wright & the Third Anniversary of the Native and Expatriate Sons and Daughters of Hurricane Katrina,” University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, September 19, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Guy Reynolds.


Richard Wright had become by the mid 50s an analyst of what it means to be ‘of’ the West. He was by now a firmly-established émigré, and had become a French citizen in 1947. His journeys, in a way, had only just become: Europe was a stage or an inauguration into further mappings of the self and society. Those mappings took the extraordinary geo-political shifts of the mid-century as their subject. In the wake of the Second World War, severely damaged economically and in terms of sheer power, European nations were finally forced to give ground to the nationalist movements that had grown in earlier decades. The United States, the clearest winner in a changed world, was an ambivalent endorser of decolonization, which had become entwined with cold war complexities, most notably in Vietnam. As a French resident, Wright – like James Baldwin – witnessed at first hand the domestic responses to France’s decolonization-era struggle in Algeria. As an American, from the South, Wright sensed very quickly that worldwide conflicts had found echoes and contrasts in America’s civil rights struggles. In other words, through his travels, and his highly self-conscious sense of himself as a being forged by history – an agent, but one shaped as we all are by complex circumstances – Wright was within the historical process and an ironic observer of its processes. The result: a trilogy of travel books. Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), Pagan Spain (1957) were set within the rapidly-changing terrain of the post-war world. A further volume, White Man Listen! (1957), based on lectures given at the beginning of the decade, provided a theoretical and historical counterpoint to the journeys in those three books.