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READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND by Farah Jasmine Griffin Kirkus Star


The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature

by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-393-65190-4
Publisher: Norton

An impassioned inquiry into the literary roots of Black culture.

Griffin, a Guggenheim fellow and inaugural chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University, delivers a glowing “series of meditations on the “fundamental questions of humanity, reality, politics, and art” by way of personal memoir and a thematic reading of Black literature, history, music, and art. The author begins by honoring her father, whose influential shadow looms large. Toni Morrison’s words, like her father’s, “shaped the way I saw and thought about the world.” Phillis Wheatley jump-started Griffin’s inquiry into the concept of mercy, also reflected in novels by Charles Chesnutt and Morrison’s A Mercy, which, like Wheatley’s poems, made her consider how writing might also be an “act of one’s will to be free.” In “Black Freedom and the Idea(l) of America” Griffin juxtaposes two giants of Black American history, Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama. Douglass “provided the ground from which Obama ascended,” and the former president’s Dreams From My Father demonstrated how Malcolm X informed his “understanding of Black nationalism.” Addressing the painful question of justice regarding slavery, racism, segregation, and mass incarceration, Griffin turns to Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines, and Morrison for answers. The author discusses the legacy of resistance via the works of the 19th-century abolitionist writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Toni Cade Bambara, whose works show “rage felt and expressed in disciplined emotions, organized and directed toward fighting injustice.” Reading Langston Hughes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jesmyn Ward, Griffin ponders how “Black death haunts Black writing.” James Baldwin’s transformative fiction is “attentive to Black love,” while Black music “made of us a people.” Invoking Lorraine Hansberry’s “pioneering” A Raisin in the Sun, Griffin also meditates on the joys of gardening: “Even in the midst of crisis, the flowers bloom.” Throughout, like a mournful mantra, she calls their names: Trayvon, Breonna, George, and so many others.

The power of reading provides the emotional engine driving this insightful, profound, and heartfelt book.