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
. 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 http://www.siueblackstudies.com/ and http://twitter.com/@blackstudies