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Roscoe Conkling Wright (1900-1984),was born in Lexington, Kentucky on September 23, 1901, to a church-going Congregationalist family, At age fifteen he ran away to join the Army. In World War I he served as a Medical Corps clerk in the Roscoe WrightArgonne Forest, France and returned to this country fluent in French. Wright received his education at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and at Northeastern University in Boston. His daughter, Mary Wright Meekins of Virginia, relates that while in Boston Wright lived in Roxbury) and “had the time of his life.” He published a series of poetry, essays, designs, and one short story in the black literary journal Saturday Evening Quill. In the 1930s he left Boston for New York, where he secured a job with the United States Postal Service’s Queens branch.

Wright’s daughter remembers that growin up she saw in her home Waring Cuney, a minor Harlem Renaissance poet whom he had met in Boston, Harlem Renaissance novelist George Schuyler, and Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, a little known playwright and poet who also was part of the Boston circle of black writers. When McBrown’s plays were performed (mostly in local churches), Roscoe Wright was always notified and he frequently attended.

Wright’s awareness of the Harlem scene is evidenced by the fact that he submitted two cover designs to the 1927 Crisis Krigwa Contest in New York. These designs won him a second prize and an honorable mention, respectively. Additionally, Wright sustained a correspondence with Langston Hughes.

In 1955, Mary Meekins recalls, her father became the second black contestant to appear on the television show "The $64,000 Question.” This came about as a result of his postal route clients’ encouraging him to apply. With poetry as his subject Wright won $16,000 and went on to the "$64,000 Challenge" in 1958, winning another $8,000 in the same category. These successes made him a hometown celebrity. However, the need to support his growing family—including a wife, two children, and his mother—became pressing and Wright’s dreams of a life in literature came to naught.

Wright’s essays are striking and powerful. In “Negro Spirituals Minus Negro Spirit” Wright reflects on the vogue of spirituals among both blacks and whites, proposing that one reason for this popularity might be a desire to hark back to the days “when the Negro was more of an underdog than he now is.” Wright comments slyly: “Some people like to be reminded of those days,” but favors another reason—that the spirituals give voice to universal emotions, religious feeling, and rich poetry. Continuing in this vein, Wright ventures that “[t]he modern Negro is, at heart, not se keen on the spirituals. But he knows that the white people like them, that he is supposed to like them”—and performs them.

However, Wright objects to the separation of the songs from the milieu in which they were created. He finds out-of-place a performance in which the singer is dressed “in a tuxedo, or perhaps in black cutaway coat, grey striped trousers, and spats,” and looking “sartorially perfect and debonair.” A female singer might be dressed in an evening gown, carry an ostrich-plume fan and wear fancy jewelry. Wright argues that spirituals were meant to be group songs: “they are really better set off by overalls, or by gingham and calico surmounted by a bandanna.” The spirituals, he adds, “are from and off the cotton field, the cane patch, the rice swamp, and the ramshackle Negro church of yesterday.” Referring perhaps to his own Southern origins, he concludes” “To one who has been nurtured on Negro spirituals, the result is laughable.”

Taking on the subject of black laughter, Wright exposes the myth of the “happy black man” as a camouflage for unhappiness and discontent, a “make-believe happiness.” Serious literature, in his opinion, giving the example of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Dark Princess, is often what he calls “escapist” and “romantic”. Or, on the other hand, it manifests as a literature of what Wright calls “protest,” as in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. Throughout the essays one senses the presence of a sharp intelligence piercing the veil of appearances to probe underlying realities.


Poetry: “Four Poems” (1928) and “Facetiae: Six Poems” (1930)
Essays: “Negro Spirituals Minus Negro Spirit” (1928) and “Is the Negro Happy?” (1929).
Art: Cover Design, Monogram and three drawings (1929); Cover Design and Monogram (1930)
Short Story: “Washwoman” (1929)


Saturday Evening Quill;
Telephone interview with Mary Wright Meekins on February 20, 2004;
Correspondence with Mary Wright Meekins.