Making the Wright Connection

An Online Community for the Study of Richard Wright

Teaching Richard Wright in Prison

Posted on September 19, 2011 | No Comments

Guest blogger Professor Robert Butler joins us from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.

Since 1976 Canisius College, along with Niagara University and Daemen College, have sponsored a degree-granting college program in prison called the Consortium of the Niagara Frontier.  For many years we had sites at Attica, Collins, and Wyoming correctional facilities but budget cuts from state and federal governments have now reduced our program to a single site at Wyoming Correctional Facility, a medium security prison located directly in back of Attica Correctional Facility.

Since 1977 I have taught on a very regular basis in this program, offering a wide variety of courses ranging from English 101 and 102 to Modern American Literature, The City in American Literature, and American Autobiography.  I have frequently taught works by Richard Wright in all of these courses and have been richly rewarded as a teacher by the insight and passion which these prison students bring to their study of Wright’s books, especially Native Son, Black Boy (American Hunger), and “The Man Who Lived Underground.”  Over the years, I have come to believe strongly that Consortium students have a special understanding of Wright’s writing and I have learned much about Wright from them.

In Native Son Wright had Bigger Thomas characterize his life as “like living in jail” (20).  And in Black Boy (American Hunger) he remarked that the South was a place that trapped him in a world “ringed by walls” (296) and also “imprisoned” the “soul” (40) of his father.  But his own ambitious program of self-education which enabled him to read books by writers such as Dreiser, Mencken, Dostoevsky, Zola, and Conrad, released him from this prison, providing him with “new ways of looking and seeing” (294), creating a liberating “new life” (296) for him.  Many of the students whom I have taught in prison have described their participation in our college program in strikingly similar terms.  Stephen Fraley, who completed his bachelor’s degree at Attica, once revealed in an essay on Native Son that “I was rescued in prison.  I came back from the dead.”  Lawrence Wilson, who also completed his college program at Attica, revealed in a graduation address that “The education we receive in the college program at Attica is an education that is experienced, not from afar, but as an intimate part of our being and living.”  Hassan Linnen, who received his college diploma while incarcerated at Collins Correctional Facility noted in his graduation address that

The Consortium is more than a program, more than a school.  It is a place I shall always remember as a safe harbor in the sea that my ignorance reigned over with its tidal waves of hopelessness and shame.  I could have spent my time in the yard playing basketball or lifting weights.  But, no! I spent my time in the cocoon which determination, opportunity, and the Consortium had spun.

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