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By Monica Drake
READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND
The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature
By Farah Jasmine Griffin
The most African American of storytelling traditions arose from the pulpit of the church. From that platform, each Sunday past and present, personal anecdotes and musings mix with an in-depth examination of Scripture, forming a sermon that echoes long after congregants have gone home.
Though Farah Jasmine Griffin did not grow up a churchgoer, she gracefully weaves the sacred with the profane in her academic memoir, “Read Until You Understand,” which explores her connection to the sweeping themes found within the African American literature she reveres. In doing so, Griffin makes literary analysis both accessible and relevant.
The book opens with an intimate recollection of Griffin’s father, who believed, as she puts it, “that teaching was an act of love.” She recalls their weekly trips to the public library and the parchment paper reproductions of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights he purchased for her on visits to Philadelphia historical sites. “My father’s lessons did not derive from an uncritical patriotism,” Griffin writes. “At times I think he exposed me to our nation’s founding fathers and the ideals they espoused so I would understand the enormity of their transgression, the enormity of their betrayal.”
But it quickly becomes apparent that “Read Until You Understand” is more about ideas and ideals than it is about one person’s life. Griffin deconstructs rage, freedom and justice, first in scenes from her own life and then in her analysis of prose, poetry and speeches of some of the most powerful Black writers in American history. “This is the power of literature: to use language to remind us of another’s humanity by touching our own,” she tells her Columbia University students, illuminating both her devotion to the works and her approach to presenting them.
Griffin recounts the emotional support she received from childhood neighbors after her father’s death as a prelude to her consideration of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which defines love as caretaking by your community. A similar sort of love, she notes, explains the impulse of some Black women (present company included) to groom their children to the hilt lest they be mistaken for thrown-away, abandoned kids.
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Her recollection of mouthing rather than singing the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” sets up a close reading of speeches and writings by Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X that contrast America’s promise of democracy with its delivery of it. The sight of an uncle’s scarred back — he was “experimented on,” Griffin’s mother explains — gives way to a deep study of how the restoration of a person’s humanity is essential to justice in “Native Son” and “Song of Solomon.”
“Let us turn again to Toni Morrison,” Griffin writes. I imagined her in a pulpit, flipping through a gilt-edged edition of “A Mercy.”
Religious reverence for literature is a recurring theme throughout “Read Until You Understand.” Griffin recalls people who memorized the lyrics of Marvin Gaye songs as if they were Scripture, and recalls her discovery of “Sula”:
“This was the beginning of the written word entering into my consciousness in the way that others imbibed the words of the Bible. From here on, more than any scribe of the Old or New Testament, Morrison would inform my understanding of my family, my history and the nation that I called home.”
Griffin’s tour through the works of heavyweights gives rare — and well-deserved — attention to some of the women who have shaped the Black canon: Phillis Wheatley, Frances Harper and Toni Cade Bambara, to name a few. She takes readers beyond her own past right up to the nation’s present, exploring how Black Lives Matter protests and Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s Verzuz virtual performance underscore some of her larger insights about the impatient language of freedom and the songs that remind Black people of who we are.
African American literature is both a passion and a vocation for Griffin, who is the inaugural chair of the African American and African diaspora studies department at Columbia, as well as the director of its institute for African American studies and a professor of English. Her expertise is evident — sometimes too much so — as she transitions from straightforward memoir to scholarship, presenting a litany of reading that feels drawn directly from her syllabuses. Occasionally, passages read as if they are transcribed from a lecture. And, while Griffin’s quick detour into music stirs up nostalgia for those of us familiar with 1970s R & B, one has the sense that it was perhaps more rewarding for her to write than it is to read.
Shortcomings aside, a book like “Read Until You Understand” takes courage to produce. Griffin tackles two challenges: How do you contextualize, in your own voice, the work of literary giants? Any sentence you put within striking distance of one by Jesmyn Ward is likely to be underwhelming. And how do you invest the reader in a memoir of foundational moments of your life as a scholar that ultimately reveals little about who you became?
The book does include flashes of brilliance. “I remember one of their filthy shoes on my mother’s white sheets,” Griffin writes of the white policemen who took her father to be treated after his stroke. “I heard the crack of the bed frame as a foot landed on the mattress and they began to lift him.” This evocative imagery foreshadows the emotional wreckage that upends the household and provides a riveting segue into a reflection on mercy through the writings of Wheatley, Morrison and Charles Chesnutt.
Nowhere is this brilliance more apparent than in the chapter on death, not a small topic, and one that has of course been taken up by writers over millenniums.
“He was there on Friday night, and then he was not,” Griffin writes of her father. Her unadorned rhythm and tone plunge us into the nightmare of losing a parent. Perhaps this is one of the strongest chapters because Griffin is so acquainted with death, having lost a sister and three of her sister’s four children. “Everyone dies,” she writes. “But Black death in America is too often premature, violent, spectacular. The particular nature of Black death haunts Black writing, as it haunts the nation.”
In examining Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing about the death of a college friend in “Between the World and Me,” Griffin notes: “Prince Jones is the literary son of Ralph Ellison’s fictional Tod Clifton. Separated by more than half a century, both are beautiful, charismatic and promising. Both are shot down by police.”
Her writing about love is equally evocative. She introduces the subject by telling the sad but sweet story of her parents’ love, then moves on to James Baldwin: “He does not romanticize Black life or the conditions under which Black people love each other. In fact, he explains them in harsh and unrelenting detail. These circumstances are what make love all the more profound, as miraculous as it is quotidian.”
Griffin’s evangelizing of Black literature does what the best sermons do: It sends you back to Scripture — Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker and others — to discover or rediscover them, to ponder and treasure them anew.
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