Monday, October 1, 2012

Encountering Richard Wright & Jerry Ward

[By Howard Rambsy II]

In July of 1996, shortly after completing my first year of undergrad at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, I was on a bus traveling from Paris to Dijon, France, where I would be taking summer courses. As I settled into the bus ride, I decided to look over reading material that I carried—the 1993 reissue of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It turns out that Jerry W. Ward, Jr., whom I would take my first literature course with in the upcoming fall at Tougaloo, wrote the introduction for the edition of Wright’s book.

I had read Wright’s Native Son my senior of high school, and in some ways, I had been inspired to go to France because I had discovered, in the back of the reissue of Native Son, that Wright had traveled to France years and years ago. Later, as a grad student, I would retrace Wright’s steps again, this time to Ghana.

I wasn’t reading Wright that summer to understand the relationship between his childhood in Mississippi and his later experiences in France. No, instead, the word had begun to circulate among English majors on campus at Tougaloo at the end of the school year that Dr. Ward would be giving a test the first day of class for his course on Richard Wright. The test would focus on Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Children, and Black Boy. The word was that Dr. Ward felt “everybody” should have “already” read those works, and after that first day’s test was out of the way, we could move on to Wright’s other, less popular works, including Black Power, The Color Curtain, The Outsider, Lawd Today!, Eight Men, Savage Holiday, and Pagan Spain.

While reading Ward’s introduction, I came across a sentence that stopped me in my tracks. “A man possessing the power of language,” wrote Ward, “cannot be a hapless victim.” I reread the sentence several times and invested considerable time wondering about the many possibilities of possessing the power of language.

My time in France in 1996 was a pivotal moment in my intellectual development. Interestingly, a memorable event from than summer was my encounter with those powerful words from that Mississippi writer. Oh yeah, I really enjoyed Wright’s work too. 

Howard Rambsy II teaches African American literature and directs the Black Studies Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He blogs and tweets about African American artistic thought, publishing history, and technology at and  

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