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.

Wright, who had very little formal education, experienced a similar kind of “safe harbor” in his reading and writing.  The process of self education which he underwent as a member of the South Side Writers Group and the John Reed Club became a kind of “cocoon” which enabled him to metamorphose into a major American writer.  He would surely understand the powerful testimony of these three graduates of the Consortium.  Like Lawrence Wilson, he regarded his education as “an intimate part of his “being” rather than an empty ritual producing a diploma and a transcript.  And, like Stephen Fraley, his education helped him to escape the psychic and public “death” of the segregated South.

All too often when we teach our classes in conventional college settings we find lightly engaged students who come to us with little preparation or conviction and who therefore disappoint us with listless discussions and superficial papers and exams.  This rarely happens in prison classes where students have to overcome a grim prison environment which makes study difficult.  These students see learning as a way of transforming their lives and, when they enter our classes, they have done the reading with care and are ready for debate which is both spirited and productive.  The classroom for these students is not the dead routine it is for so many traditional students but instead a place where they can explore ideas, challenge their teachers and explore important issues.  It is a wonderful setting for human growth.

Teaching Wright’s works in such a highly charged environment has always been a deeply satisfying experience for me, both as a teacher and as a person.  For example, when I taught Native Son last summer in an African American Literature course at Wyoming, I was amazed at the depth of our discussions and the excellent papers and exams which emerged from these discussions.  Students deeply probed the philosophical issues raised by the novel, some arguing for a deterministic reading of the book while others read the novel in very complex existential terms.  And there were a wide variety of responses to Bigger Thomas, ranging from seeing him as a modern hero to a naturalistic victim.  But all of the students examined his character well beyond the crude stereotypes which conventional readers often are blinded by.  Collectively, our class saw Bigger as the “snarl of many realities” (NS 450) which Wright described in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.”  The court scenes, which most of my Canisius students find boring and skip in favor of a Spark Notes summary, drew lively discussion and more than a few comparisons between Bigger’s unfair trial and their own botched defenses.  And the novel’s racial themes, which conventional students find hard to talk about (or even think about), were examined honestly and in great detail.

Terri Havens, who is now completing his undergraduate work at Wyoming Correctional, has demonstrated an especially keen interest in Wright over the past two years.  After studying Native Son in my African American Literature class in the summer of 2010, he began a serious study of Wright’s major writings, focusing particularly on Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son,      12 Million Black Voices, Black Boy (American Hunger), The Outsider, and the poems in Haiku: This Other World.  In the fall semester he wrote a penetrating short essay, “The transformative Power of Language in Black Boy” which he then developed into a longer study, “Zen and the Art of Richard Wright” which will soon be published in The Wright Connection.  Terri’s knowledge of Wright’s overall oeuvre already matches the understanding of a serious graduate student and his reading of Black Boy (American Hunger) has the originality and depth which characterize scholarly publications of very high quality.  When he is released from prison he intends to pursue graduate work.  His study of Wright could very well result in a superb dissertation.

In a letter written to me in January of this year Terri wrote that “This is the third time I am reading Black Boy and each time I have seen new things in it that I missed the time before…Another thing I have noticed is that when I speak to others about Richard Wright I am more and more comfortable about discussing his life, almost as if I am getting to know him.”  Terri’s observation pinpoints why teaching in the Consortium program is such an exciting experience.  Education for prison students is not a mechanical routine culminating in a grade (the equivalent of what Hassan Linnen described as “lifting weights in the yard”) but, rather, a deeply human experience resulting in the kind of deepened understanding and personal growth which is documented so powerfully in Wright’s life and work.


Wright, Richard.  Native Son: The Restored Text.  New York: Perennial Classics, 1993.

.  “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.”  In Native Son: The Restored Text.  New York: Perennial Classics, 1993.

Black Boy (American Hunger). New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.