Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Read Until You Understand is a gift to the devoted reader, a lovely memoir of growing up that bountifully illustrates that intellectual households are not correlated with wealth and privilege. Griffin, Columbia University’s William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies and Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, brings together her life and her books, her family, and her education, and in the process artfully illustrates her prodigious talents of teaching and storytelling. In these frenzied and schism-racked times, when to even speak about a racial divide brings accusations of bias and enmity, Griffin’s even-handed, justice-centering narrative illuminates the well springs of dignity, love, and justice inherent in the African American community. That she rose to her current pinnacle—in addition to her prestigious professorship she also chaired the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia—Griffin sees as an inheritance from her parents, a couple both extraordinary and unremarkable, as well as from the beauty and the insight of Black culture—its literature, artisanal skills, gardening, and music. To read this volume is to take a master class with one of the most sensitive and insightful readers of African American writing active today. Read Until You Understand presents a moving bildungsroman: Griffin lives in those renowned lines of Langston Hughes—“Night Coming Tenderly/Black Like Me.”
Each chapter stands on its own as an essay, and together they comprise a moving narrative of the needful intersection of the intellectual and the quotidian.
One must approach the reading of this fine book with two minds and in two ways: one path would be to search the chapters for Griffin’s coming to be the influential mind we know today; another road would take us through the canon of African American literature, yet not in a rigidly chronological way. To meet the author where she would like us to be, we must engage with her memories with more than empathy: when she writes about her late father’s passing, whether you have lost a beloved parent recently or decades ago, you find yourself struggling through her beautiful, terrible memories; coming through to the other side of such passages cathartically rewards. Throughout the book Griffin entwines her personal account of life as a Black woman in America—tragic encounters with police, teachers who either misrepresent her or open her mind to new thoughts—with those books that underscore the way in which her life functions as a synecdoche for her Black, Philadelphian neighbors.
Griffin divides the book into chapters but Read is no highlight reel of African American literature (and I should add, expressive Black culture, for Griffin would have us understand that printed texts are not the sole ones we read). Stating at the outset that her volume “is designed as a seminar where we readers, together, seek a deeper understanding of the works and the principles they explore.” (xi) Griffin places in conversation writings from different centuries, literary genres, and political movements, musical styles, and garden plots. To read, we teachers agree with Griffin, truly is to know, and to do so we must often hold together contrasting if not opposing ideas and thoughts. Hence her ten chapters, which begin with the “Legacy, Love, Learning,” continue with discussions of “Rage and Resistance” and “The Transformative Potential of Love,” proceed to a serene closing meditation “Of Gardens and Grace.” Each chapter stands on its own as an essay, and together they comprise a moving narrative of the needful intersection of the intellectual and the quotidian.
Her insights and empathy into Black anger over blighted lives, whether in literary passages or in live-streamed agony, demonstrate powerfully why reading literature will continue to offer consolation and ways forward through pain and meaningless violence.
The most striking and the most heart-breaking event comes early on in Read Until You Understand, and it recurs as a tragic, illuminating coda: the untimely death of her father. Emerson Maxwell Griffin, a working-class man who firmly inhabits that all-American role of the autodidact, shared with his daughters his love of knowledge and music. We meet him in “Legacy, Love and Learning” as a clear-eyed critic of American society, who nevertheless took care to introduce his daughter to the documents penned by the nation’s founding fathers as well as those latter-day revolutionaries he admired. From her father she learned that American rhetoric, whether from the White men who would declare their independence from England or the Black Panthers, shared common goals if different communities: “He pointed out the similarities of [the Panthers’ Ten Point Program] to the Declaration of Independence.” (2) Emerson Maxwell similarly schooled her in close reading, asking the tiny future professor, ‘what do you think that [word in the Gettysburg Address] means? Shall we look it up?’ His love for his wife and daughters places him in the honored cadre of adoring fathers in literature, and while his daughter limns his weaknesses clearly, her returned love and devotion shine throughout. When he dies, too early in Griffin’s girlhood, we grieve deeply with the author: it would be a cool reader indeed who cannot, like Frederick Douglass, trace a tear making its way down their cheek. When she returns again to his last moments, in the chapter titled “Death,” the reader feels profoundly that his passing stands as a recursive statement of the ongoing bereavements in African America. “My father’s people do not reach old age. His mother, aunt, and uncles all died before turning sixty. . . I always thought my people died from being Black in America, its own kind of despair. . . As a girl, I was familiar with the loss of loved ones.” (129-130) Griffin speaks here and elsewhere to a catalogue of literary loss beyond the cessation of life itself, from the self-destructive internalization of racism detailed in classic works like The Bluest Eye to when a death, whether in Sula or Men We Have Lost, paradoxically frees us to understand that we as a people will continue, “that our dead beloveds are always with us, an energy that holds all they were and surrounds us.” (143)
Chapters like “The Quest for Justice” and “Rage and Resistance” guide her audience through AP standards like Native Son and insufficiently read touchstones like David Walker’s Appeal; to follow her discussions is to gain a never-failing pilot to life’s wisdom and challenges. While aware of the obstacles we yet face, Griffin’s view is not bleak: “Our writers. . . [have been showing] us how to live like the future we are hoping to bid is already here.” 123). Her insights and empathy into Black anger over blighted lives, whether in literary passages or in live-streamed agony, demonstrate powerfully why reading literature will continue to offer consolation and ways forward through pain and meaningless violence. Griffin furthermore goes beyond the meanings captured between the covers of books and to “the landscape of sound” (170): When she recalls the way her family plumbed Miles Davis album covers, the jukebox singles in her family’s little restaurant, and the political messages entwined with the compositions of Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, she observes their “sense of Black self-determination that informed the times.” (177-178) As the author of In Search of Billie Holiday: If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery, Griffin would of course see the inextricable connection between music, another set of texts from which we learn, and books.
Farah Jasmine Griffin demonstrates that while she may be sui generis, she also personifies a people too often underestimated.
Closing chapters present a peroration of sorts. In “Cultivating Beauty” she links her critical revelations on the artist Romare Bearden with her mother’s private visuality: on seeing Bearden’s “The Dressmaker” and “Autumn of the Red Hat,” she is mesmerically “drawn to the sewing machine,” making an immediate connection between the heralded artist and the everyday creatives he celebrates: women like her mother, grandmother, and aunt, those also “engaged in the art of transformation.” (188) Meditations on craft, beauty, and personal sovereignty bring her circle, of self and the Philadelphia community, round and whole. Griffin lauds her grandmother’s gifts for tending houseplants, her aunt’s steadfast cultivation of yellow roses, her mother’s flair for sewing, and the Black women writers like Toni Morrison and Rita Dove whose bittersweet lessons teach us all: “They cultivated beauty as a way of making possible new ways of understanding who we were, what we might become, and the worlds we might build.” (208)
Read Until You Understand, Griffin’s father’s gentle command—for he urged books on her that would stretch her intellect—exquisitely brings together personal history and one particular community, an intersection that reveals the interior world of African America. Farah Jasmine Griffin demonstrates that while she may be sui generis, she also personifies a people too often underestimated. If we take seriously Emerson Griffin’s directive to press on to knowledge, even if at first the lesson seems unknowable, and to pursue his daughter’s loving and loved education, we will learn one family’s exceptional, everyday history as well as guidelines to serve us in these fraught times. Read Until You Understand; read this book so that you can.