Wright, the grandson of former slaves, was born on the Rucker plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, in Franklin County, just outside of Natchez.
His family soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, his father Nathaniel, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family because of a hard time finding a job. His mother, a schoolteacher, had to supportherself and her children. In 1914 Ella Wright became ill, and the two brothers were sent to Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage. The mother then moved with her children to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with relatives. In Jackson, Wright grew up and attended public high school. In 1916, Wright, his brother, and their mother returned to Mississippi, moving in with Margaret Wilson, Wright’sgrandmother.
Later, the family moved in with Wright’s aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas, but left after whites murdered Wright’s uncle Silas Hoskins in 1916. The family fled to West Helena, Arkansas, where they lived in fear in rented rooms for several weeks. Mrs. Wright took the boys to Jackson, Mississippi, for several months in 1917, but they returned to West Helena by the winter of 1918.Further family disintegration occurred after Mrs. Wright suffered a stroke in 1919. Wright reluctantly chose to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he could be near his mother, but restrictions placed on him by his aunt and uncle made him an emotional wreck. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, he was permitted to return to Jackson, where he lived with Grandmother Wilsonfrom early 1920 until late 1925. Wright felt stifled by his aunt and his maternal grandmother, who tried to force him to pray that he might find God. He later threatened to leave home because Grandmother Wilson refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath. Early strife with his aunt and grandmother left him with a permanent, uncompromising hostility toward religious solutionsto everyday problems.
At the age of fifteen, Wright penned his first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre". It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. In 1923, Wright was made class valedictorian. Determined not to be called an Uncle Tom, he refused to deliver the assistant principal's carefully prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officialsand finally convinced the black administrators to let him read a compromised version of what he had written. In September of the same year Wright registered for mathematics, English, and history courses at the new Lanier High School in Jackson but had to stop attending classes after a few weeks of irregular attendance because he needed to earn money for family expenses. His childhood in Memphisand Mississippi shaped his lasting impressions of American racism.
Wright moved to Chicago in 1927. After finally securing employment as a postal clerk, he read other writers and studied their styles during his time off. When his job at the post office was eliminated by the Great Depression, he was forced to go on relief in 1931. In 1932 he began attending meetings of the John ReedClub. As the club was dominated by the Communist Party, Wright established a relationship with a number of party members. Especially interested in the literary contacts made at the meetings, Wright formally joined the Communist Party in late 1933 and as a revolutionary poet wrote numerous proletarian poems ("I Have Seen Black Hands," "We of the Streets," "Red Leaves of Red Books," for example) forThe New Masses and other left-wing periodicals.
A power struggle within the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club led to the dissolution of the club's leadership; Wright was told he had the support of the club's party members if he was willing to join the party.
By 1935, Wright had completed his first novel, Cesspool, published as Lawd Today (1963), and in January 1936 his story "Big Boy...