Sarah E. Wright, Novelist of Black Experience in the Depression, Dies at 80
In 1969 Sarah E. Wright, a Maryland-born writer living in Manhattan, published her first novel, “This Child’s Gonna Live.” Issued by Delacorte Press, it portrays the lives of an impoverished black woman and her family in a Maryland fishing village during the Depression. Often compared to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the novel was unusual in its exploration of the black experience from a woman’s perspective, anticipating fiction by writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
“This Child’s Gonna Live” was hailed by critics around the country and named an outstanding book of 1969 by The New York Times. Reviewing it in The Times Book Review earlier that year, the novelist Shane Stevens called it a “small masterpiece,” adding: “Sarah Wright’s triumph in this novel is a celebration of life over death. It is, in every respect, an impressive achievement.”
Ms. Wright never published another novel. She died in Manhattan on Sept. 13, at 80; the cause was complications of cancer, her husband, Joseph Kaye, said. Today “This Child’s Gonna Live” remains highly regarded in literary circles though little known outside them.
The novel centers on Mariah Upshur, the wife of a black oysterman on the Maryland shore. Set in the fictional community of Tangierneck in the early 1930s, it unsparingly depicts the hunger, disease, racism and hard labor that were the stuff of daily life.
Capable, sensual and fiercely determined, Mariah engages in an interior dialogue with Jesus throughout the book. In the opening passage, she prays for a sunny day so she can earn money in the fields, where the young potato plants “weren’t anything but some little old twigs and promises.”
Mariah is pregnant with her fifth child. She has already lost one child in infancy and before the book is out will lose another. She dreams of escaping Tangierneck, “a place of standing still and death,” and is adamant that her new child will live.
While novelists like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison had explored the black male experience, Ms. Wright’s novel was among the first to focus on the confluence of race, class and sex. Republished by the Feminist Press in 1986 and again in 2002, “This Child’s Gonna Live” remains in print today.
Not every reviewer embraced the book. Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1969, the critic Irving Howe called its style “overwrought.” But many others praised Ms. Wright’s densely interwoven poetic language, her deft use of local dialect and her ability to convey the extraordinary predicament of being black, female, rural and poor.
“It’s a very difficult novel in a lot of ways,” Jennifer Campbell, an associate professor of writing studies at Roger Williams University, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. (Professor Campbell wrote the afterword to the novel’s 2002 edition.) “It’s very, very painful to read: the pain of not being able to keep your children safe, of not being able to feed them properly, of not being able to give them two pennies for the Halloween celebration.”
Ms. Wright spent about 10 years working on a second novel but did not complete it, her husband said last week.
She scarcely seems to have had time. Besides working full-time as a bookkeeper, Ms. Wright taught, lectured and was a past vice president of the Harlem Writers Guild. She published critical essays; a volume of poetry, “Give Me a Child” (Kraft Publishing, 1955, with Lucy Smith); and a nonfiction book for young people, “A. Philip Randolph: Integration in the Workplace” (Silver Burdett, 1990). She was deeply involved in political causes, protesting everything from the Vietnam War to South African apartheid to the present war in Iraq.
There was something else, Ms. Wright’s husband said, that kept her from the second novel: the anguish of writing the first. For the story of the Upshur family, though its characters were composites, was in large measure Ms. Wright’s own.
Sarah Elizabeth Wright was born on Dec. 9, 1928, in Wetipquin, Md., a historically free black community on the eastern shore. Her father, like Mariah’s husband, was an oysterman; her mother, like Mariah, shucked oysters and picked crops. Sarah had nearly a dozen siblings, several of whom died in childhood. She began writing poetry when she was about 8.
After graduating from Salisbury Colored High School, Sarah entered Howard University, where she became editor of the newspaper. She left before graduating, her husband said, “because she was literally starving.” Her parents had no money to send her for food.
“When Sarah went off to Howard, they had no idea what it meant in terms of the financial requirements,” Mr. Kaye said last week. “They gave her oilcloth that they thought she could barter with other people to obtain what she needed.”
Ms. Wright moved to Philadelphia in the late 1940s and to New York a decade later. There, in a three-room apartment on the Lower East Side, she began work on “This Child’s Gonna Live.”
“That took such a toll on her, because she was forced to dredge up painful childhood memories that she thought she had run away from when she left the community,” Mr. Kaye said. “Death just seemed to be a constant companion in her childhood, and the spirit of death just hovered over the community.”
Besides her husband, Ms. Wright, who was known in private life as Sarah Wright Kaye, is survived by a son, Michael; a daughter, Shelley Chotai; three siblings, Wanda, Howard and Gilbert; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
She also leaves behind a box containing the manuscript of her unfinished novel, the second installment in a planned trilogy about the people of Tangierneck. During the decade she worked on the book, Ms. Wright never discussed it, even with her husband.
Mr. Kaye has not opened the box. To judge from the heft, he said, it contains several hundred pages. From a chapter he found elsewhere, the novel appears to concern Bardetta Upshur, Mariah’s daughter — the child who was meant to live, and did.
THE AMSTERDAM NEWS
Sarah Wright, noted author and activist, passes
By Herb Boyd
Special to the AmNews
Photo: Paul Robeson, center, shares a moment with Sarah Wright and an unidentified onlooker.
In Sarah E. Wright’s magnum opus, This Child’s Gonna Live (1969), her protagonist, Mariah Upshur, is in the process of wrestling with Satan before finding her special sanctuary. “I’m in your service, Lord,” Mariah prayed. “Clean my soul. Clean my mouth that I may speak your words.”
The Lord heard Mariah’s prayer in the same way He must have attended to Wright’s artistic quest because the novel is a prose-poem of beauty and eloquence that will have to stand since Wright is no longer with us. Wright made her transition September 13 after a prolonged illness.
A writer of extraordinary feeling and compassion for the downtrodden, a woman and activist of unwavering honesty and conviction, Wright was as committed to her writing as she was to the struggle for civil and human rights. Still, closest to her heart were the causes of peace and the liberation of her people.
Like her idol Paul Robeson, she saw no separation between her art and her politics—they were a unity of resistance against injustice.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia in the 1950s from the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she was born and raised, and from Howard University which she attended, Wright immersed herself in the fight against racism and homegrown fascism. With her poetry and picket signs she was a constant presence along with those who demanded freedom and justice for W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and others targeted and arrested during the dark days of McCarthyism and the Cold War.
This determination continued with renewed fervor when she became a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild, joining her considerable talent and integrity with John Oliver Killens, Rosa Guy, Grace Edwards, and Louise Meriwether.
In his assessment of her signature novel, Killens’ noted that it wasn’t a “pretty book,” but an “overwhelming metaphor of the Black experience…all the more powerful and truthful for having a protagonist who is a Black woman of unparalleled heroism in this white, racist, capitalistic, male-supremacist society.”
Together, as you might imagine, Killens and Wright were a formidable duo in the Guild, organizing seminars and conferences, conducting workshops, and the list of writers who acquired their skills and launched their careers under their stewardship provides a glimpse at the African American literary canon.
“Sarah was a great help to fledgling and established writers,” said Grace Edwards, a prolific author and current executive director of the Guild. “Whenever she showed up at our meetings, people paid attention because they knew she was a serious artist with a deep concern about their development. We respected her as a writer and her leadership, which was invaluable.”
Louise Meriwether, another stalwart in the Guild and noted for her novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, was equally expressive in her praise for Wright and her contributions to the Guild. “Sarah was exceedingly generous with her time and interest,” she said in a phone interview. “What a remarkable spirit she possessed. She was a very meticulous author and poet, very concerned about getting the right word in the right place. And she was a good cook.”
Wright’s ability in the kitchen was only exceeded by her work with the pen, something her husband, Joe Kaye is quick to confirm. “Yes, Sarah was a fantastic cook, but she could do so many things around the house; she could fix things and make things; her versatility was practically unlimited,” Kaye sighed.
“But what I will miss most about her is her unimpeachable integrity, her sense of honesty and always seeking the truth,” Kaye continued.
Some of the that truth can be found in her poetry, and her other books, including Give Me a Child, a collection of verse co-authored with Lucy Smith, and her biography of A. Philip Randolph.
A public tribute to her life and work will be held on Saturday, November 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Ethical Culture Society where all those who, as she did, believe in the possibility of achieving a “world worthy of human beings” may pay her tribute.