Mrs. Wright (Ella Wilson Wright)
Since Richard doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on anyone but himself, let’s get some facts about this lady. Mrs. Wright is 1) Richard’s mom. 2) Her husband leaves her when Richard and his brother are still little kids, and 3) it breaks her heart. 4) She tries to work to support her sons, but soon a lifetime of illness makes her incapable of working.
And that’s pretty much it. After a while, all we hear about her is that she’s moving around with Richard from bad apartment to bad apartment.
Suffer the Little Children—or At Least Make Them Suffer
When the book opens, though, Mrs. Wright looms large in Richard’s life. She seems constantly upset, beating him because he burns the house down (while we don’t condone child abuse, that does seem like something to be angry about); angrily refusing to answer his questions about race; and, oh yeah, locking him out of the house and telling him in a "deadly tone" that she’s going to "teach [him] this night to stand up and fight for yourself" (1.1.206).
After a while, though, the predominant image we have of Richard’s mother changes from a menacing, punitive lady into a bed-ridden invalid. After a certain point, that’s all that she is. Even though lying in bed paralyzed doesn’t do much for her character development, it has an important role in the story and in Richard’s development. She becomes a symbol of suffering.
Richard suffered because of his mother’s anger, and now he suffers because of his mother’s illness. He’s always hungry and poor, because most of his childhood he has no adults to provide for him. He can’t finish school, because the family is always moving. He has to find work, because she can’t earn money.
It might almost sound like Richard is blaming her for his difficult life, if it weren’t that he also shows us how much she suffers from her illness. Watching her in pain makes Richard think about the idea of suffering more generally (1.6.104). Why this family? What’s the point? When he grows up and starts thinking about people other than himself, Richard will ask the same questions about the suffering of all black people.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
Even though we don’t actually know much about Richard’s mom, what we do learn shows us a lady not too different from her son. (She is the one who taught him to fight, after all.)
When life tries to kick her down, Richard’s mom keeps fighting until she physically can’t anymore. Even though she’s way more conformist than Richard, she still seems to think a bit differently than the rest of her family, like the fact that she goes to a Methodist church instead of a Seventh Day Adventist church.
Maybe that helps explain why there were so many arguments in the family. When Richard stands up to Granny and Aunt Addie, Mrs. Wright forces herself out of bed just so that she can kiss him because she is so proud of him (1.5.253).
Determined, individualistic, and argumentative? Yep, that sounds like Richard to us.