Making the Wright Connection

An Online Community for the Study of Richard Wright

Zen and the Art of Richard Wright

Posted on October 2, 2011 | No Comments

The Wright Connection is pleased to present the essay “Zen and the Art of Richard Wright” by Terri Havens.  Mr. Havens is currently completing his undergraduate work at Wyoming Correctional Facility, under the direction of Professor Robert Butler, Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.  When he is released from prison, Mr. Havens intends to pursue graduate work.

An excerpt from “Zen and the Art of Richard Wright”:

Time exists for us because we measure it vicariously by observing the movement of things. Consequently, however, we arbitrarily designate point As and point Bs along a seemingly linear construct. And herein lies the problem: we tend to merge these pairs of points and make out of them destinations—that follow one after the other in endless procession—instead of admiring the transitions and transformations these junctions actually represent. Through words Richard Wright would ultimately find freedom, but when we look at his mind’s—and subsequently his craft’s—journey through the metamorphoses of understanding the magic, power, and catharsis of literary expression, we can see a very logical progression that redirects his journey inward with nary a destination in sight.

Through a succession of experiences involving the assimilation and employment of words—or lack thereof, as in the beginning of Black Boy (American Hunger)—Wright shows us this transformation in stark detail albeit with the benefit of hindsight. By focusing on seemingly separate instances throughout his autobiography, the reader can holistically discern a ‘quasi-Sidharthean’ quest for enlightenment. For Wright this takes varying forms and degrees of freedom from an alternation of oppressive environments contained in an early twentieth-century South, an urbanized North of the Twenties and Thirties, and self as positioned not only against environment, but also against his own understanding of self—a oneness only hinted at in Existentialism and exemplified in Zen Buddhism. This transition, and thus his autobiography, would end not in American Hunger but in the thousands of haiku poems he would pen in the last eighteen months of his life under the auspices of self-imposed exile in France.

Read the entire essay:  Zen and the Art of Richard Wright by Terri Havens

More on Professor Robert Butler’s experience teaching Wright to correctional facility inmates.

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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South Carolina students connect with Black Boy

Posted on June 29, 2011 | No Comments

Byron Brown, Summer 2010 Wright Connection Institute participant, and his students connect to Black Boy in South Carolina:

During the fall semester of 2010, I had the opportunity to teach Black Boy to my students at Scott’s Branch High School.  I teach students who are on poverty level and below actual reading grade levels. We began exploring Black Boy by the teacher writing the word “hunger” on the board.  As the leading facilitator in the room, I asked each student to say what comes to mind when they hear the word “hunger.”  I wrote each word on the blackboard that the students called:  “poverty,” “homeless,” “fatherless,” “struggles” and “deprived” were the popular concepts being stated.  Then, I asked what it means to be hungry.  Several students answered:  “to be without,” “to desire something greater,” and “having an urge for something.”  As the teacher, I then said “good” to all the students.  I told them that we were going to read about a man who had undergone basically everything they stated.  Immediately the students’ interest rose.


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Students explore poetry through mp3 players and quilts

Posted on June 10, 2011 | No Comments

Emily Robbins, Summer 2010 Wright Connection Institute participant, utilized new teaching ideas in her Knoxville, TN classroom.

Although I have not had the opportunity to teach any of Richard Wright’s works this year, I have been able to use many of the teaching ideas that were presented at the NEH Institute last summer. As soon as I got home from the institute, I put in a request for a class set of easy-to-use SanDisk Mp3 players. I loved the different lesson ideas presented at the Institute, and I knew that I could build upon those ideas in my own classroom.

For one freshmen English lesson, I taped a guided analysis of how to read and analyze a poem; I also taped myself walking through two student example papers explaining how they were effective at analyzing a poem. When the students walked into the classroom, they were handed an Mp3 player and copies of two student papers, and they were instructed to turn to a poem in their literature books. On the Mp3 player I had taped instructions that would help guide them through the lesson.

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Teacher Larry Hoffner’s Students Combine Art and Literature

Posted on March 3, 2011 | No Comments

Larry Hoffner, Summer 2010 Wright Connection Institute participant teaches at LaGuardia High School, NYC… the “Fame” school.

Larry HoffnerThis year I didn’t teach Wright, but I had a student-teacher whom I worked with who taught Native Son. It was a very rewarding experience. He was young and very enthusiastic. The students really took to the text and the discussions were rich a rewarding. Since we are an art school, we had the students create murals to decorate our hallways. The plan was to create the scene where Bigger decapitates Mary, but that idea was rejected for obvious reasons. The scene that was produced is where Bigger is killing the rat. I photographed and attached some of the pictures. What I found most profound during the experience was the process. While the students were creating these pieces, they discussed the text in a rather informal and perceptive manner. Perhaps all literature can be taught and learned through this type of interactive and creative process. It made learning fun!

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