William Attaway (1911–1986) was born in Mississippi, the son of a physician who moved his family to Chicago to escape the segregated South. Attaway was an indifferent student in high school, but after hearing a Langston Hughes poem read in class and discovering that Hughes was black, he was inspired with an urgent ambition to write. Rebelling against his middle-class origins, Attaway dropped out of the University of Illinois and spent some time as a hobo before returning to complete his college degree in 1936. He then worked variously as a seaman, a salesman, a union organizer, and as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, where he made friends with Richard Wright. Attaway moved to New York, published his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), the story of two white vagrants traveling with a young Mexican boy, and quickly followed it with Blood on the Forge (1941), about the fate of three African-American brothers in the Great Migration to the North. Attaway never produced another novel, but went on to prosper as a writer of radio and television scripts, screenplays, and numerous songs, including the “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” which was a hit for his friend Harry Belafonte. A resident for many years of Barbados, Attaway returned to the United States toward the end of his life. He died in Los Angeles while working on a script.
A savage vision of the Great Migration told through a bleak and harrowing story of three brothers.