Happy birthday to one of our best American writers! This tribute appeared in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.”

I own a fifth edition of Wright’s Black Boy. What makes it special is that it’s signed in the frontispiece “Sophie Tucker.” It was her personal copy. When I was a child, Sophie Tucker was a popular singer whose theme song was “Some of These Days.” She appeared in Houston at the Shamrock Hotel, which was the go-to destination for stars at that time. During her run, she stayed at a neighbor’s house and I got to meet the great woman.

I never met Richard Wright. I wish I had, but not as a child.

Today is the birthday of American novelist Richard Wright (1908) (books by this author), author of the novel Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), a seminal memoir of African American experience. Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi, a town he described as “swarming with rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors, and children.”

Wright dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help his family. Black people weren’t allowed to take out library books in the 1920s, so he forged a letter from an Irish co-worker asking a librarian to “let the colored boy use my card.” Wright read voraciously, studying the styles of different writers. He told a friend, “I want my life to count for something.”

He was in New York by 1937, working on a guidebook of Harlem for the Federal Writers’ Project when his first collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, was published (1938). The collection won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to keep working on the novel that became Native Son, the story of 20-year-old African-American Bigger Thomas, whose opportunity-deprived life on the South Side of Chicago leads him to commit murder. The first draft was written in four months. The book is a searing examination of the consequences of systemic racism. About the book, Wright said: “I was guided by but one criterion: to tell the truth as I saw it and felt it. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” The novel was an instant sensation, selling more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks.

Wright said: “All literature is protest. You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.”