In Richard Wright’s 1951 article “I Choose Exile,” he describes his life in France that, according to him, is free from the overt racism he faces as a matter of routine in America. Unlike other surveilled writers of his time, he makes it clear that he has chosen exile voluntarily. It is of intense interest to me that he explains that there is nothing of America that he misses, and “barring war or catastrophe” plans to remain in exile for the rest of his life. It is difficult for me to believe that having spent the first 38 years of his life in his “native land” there are no family, friends, favorite places, restaurants, music, even kindred spirits, that he does not miss. However, I understand that he states this to explicate his point and juxtapose the racist landscape of America, to the freedom and picturesque setting of France. Wright states, “I love freedom, and I tell you frankly that there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America!” Was he knowingly employing hyperbole with this statement, and other statements similar to this?
As an astute and well-traveled man, it is hard to believe that he saw France as idyllic as he describes. A safe haven during a tumultuous time in America, especially for African Americans? Yes. However, he could not have believed that France was a scenic paradise, free from all traces of racism. Wright goes on to posit, “Yes, some people need more freedom than others, and I am one of them.” One could see this as a gentle chastising of other African Americans who seemingly content with their lot, would continue under the oppressive regime of whites in America, while he, who needs freedom, chooses to travel many hundreds of miles to obtain the freedom he speaks of.
Though he experiences years of racial segregation, Wright reveals that it was an event in 1946 that concretizes his decision to leave America, possibly forever. “Fed up” with living in the city, he decided to pursue his desire to purchase a home in New England. He was confident that he will be able to purchase a property in the location where “Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau [had] sprung from that stubborn but free soil.” His confidence is buoyed by the fact that he has the ability to purchase a home with $6,000.00 cash. He sensed an uneasiness in the real estate agent upon making an offer. His suspicion was confirmed days later when it was revealed that “the white owner did not want to sell his house to a Negro.” While one might expect that an incidence of violence would have precipitated such a drastic change, according to Wright, it was his inability to live where he chose that caused him to immediately announce to his wife “This is the first of April. We are leaving America on the first of May. Take the child out of school. Put the furniture in storage. Buy tickets for Paris. We’re through here.” This piece gives insight into the man beyond just the revered and celebrated writer. While Wright did reveal some of his desires and vulnerabilities perhaps previously unknown to his audience, I question his veracity in his claims as to why he left, and exactly what he found when he arrived in France.