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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Between Richard Wright and Me

Acceptance statement for the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award

Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration

February 26, 2011









                We both spent our childhood and youth in Mississippi in the twentieth century.  Like many American males we were sensitive to how we were socialized by the values and expectations of our families.  We were fully aware that law and custom set boundaries for our growth, and we discovered fairly early the peculiar feeling of accomplishment that came from defying limits.  We were curious rebels, and the price we had to pay for our lack of meekness shaped and left indelible marks on our personalities.

                Our curiosity about the things of this world was notably increased by our uses of literacy.  We were avid readers, allowing our imaginations to be much enlarged by words, language, and the lore one can acquire from books and from oral transmission.  We were different from our peers.  We were existential before either of us could pronounce or define that word.  Our differentness was at once a blessing and a curse, a paradox within the matrix of Deep South society. We were blessed with inner strength and will power, with knowing we had the option of refusing to become who and what the less than generous world desired we should become.  Even if our bodies gave scant evidence of disobedience, our minds delighted in transgressive explorations; we entertained ideas that neither our immediate families nor our environments were prepared to understand or condone.  As we grew into adolescence, our observations and reading prepared us to become exceptionally critical of injustice.  And we discovered that the forms of language that so fascinated us could be instruments for effecting change.  Literature and our experiences taught us that we did not have to be passive.  We had agency; it was our entitlement under natural law to deny the possibility of our being wretched and tragic victims.

                Obviously, I have sketched a few parallels between the life experiences that Richard Wright described vividly in his classic autobiography Black Boy and my memories of the trajectory of my own life.  The epiphany I had upon reading Black Boy in my youth created a most powerful affinity between Richard Wright and me.  It also created the recognition that we shared, despite the thirty-five years that separated us, similar values and tough-minded perspectives about the dynamics of good and evil that impact the lives of human beings.  Although our paths in adulthood took quite different directions ---Wright used his talents to establish himself as a writer of international importance, and I used my talents to forge a career in American higher education, we both dedicated our lives to trying in good faith to speak truth about our world, to find receptive ears for our words, and to shake people out of the dangerous habits of inattention and complacency.  Richard Wright has indeed taught me through the full range of his writings about my obligations to humanity.

                Thus, it is with profound humility that I accept the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and express my gratitude to the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration for deciding that I am worthy of such a distinguished honor.  Of course, that gratitude includes thanks to Carolyn Vance Smith for founding NLCC and to members of Wright’s family who have embraced me with kindness.  The honor entails an obligation to think and write in ways that pay tribute to the model of excellence that Richard Wright set for all of us and to continue my commitment to ensuring that future generations of writers and thinkers never forget how essentially valuable is Richard Wright’s legacy to the world.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

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