Acclaimed scholar reflects on black life and literature

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Mellon Fellow in Residence Farah Jasmine Griffin has dedicated her life to understanding the genius of black thinkers and artists. Through her own writings and teachings, she helps others to do the same.

When Farah Jasmine Griffin was in third grade, her father gave her a paperback copy of Black Struggle: A History of the Negro in America, a book for young readers by Bryan Fulks, with a note written on the title page: “Jazzie has read this book. You may not understand it at first. But read it and understand. …Baby, read it until you understand. Griffin, a professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, has dedicated his life to understanding not only black literature and history, but also music, poetry and the art, while helping students and readers do the same.

His latest book, Read Till You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (Norton, 2021), is in part a memoir of her childhood in Philadelphia and her father, whose passion for learning until his traumatic death, when he was forty-five and she never was only nine, shaped the contours of Griffin’s intellectual and personal life. Autobiographical musings are woven into meditations on racism, violence, beauty, love, and the omnipresence of music in black lives. The words of black luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye and especially Toni Morrison, to whom the book is dedicated, guide the way.

Dr. Griffin, Mellon Fellow-in-Residence, spoke to us about her journey from young reader and writer to scholar, her tips for the Class of 2022, and more.

Available now

The title of Griffin’s book was inspired by an inscription from his late father.

Cover of the book Read until you understand

Is the title of your book some kind of assignment, and if so, what will readers learn?
I think that’s a suggestion for a way of being, which is to have a life that is committed to trying to understand, and that reading is one way of doing that. I don’t see understanding as a destination. I see it as a process. As curious and reflective people, we should be engaged in a process of understanding through information, through attention, through reading, through listening. We are on this journey.

What did you imagine yourself doing growing up?
I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to be a writer.

Your father was your first teacher. Did his example influence your decision to pursue studies?
It absolutely shaped my decision. I mean, one of my toys was a blackboard. And I’ve always loved my teachers. To be practical, I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m good with words, maybe I’ll be a lawyer. It never occurred to me that academia was something I would end up doing until two of my professors [at Harvard] recommended that I think about it. I was writing a thesis and loved research, but I remember thinking, “What a self-indulgent career. Doing the things I love in life? It’s not painful enough!

If you could talk to your dad about your book, what would those conversations look like?
We would have had deep conversations. I would introduce her to feminism and the women writers who have changed my life. I think he would have been happy to learn what I was learning, so maybe there was a change where he wasn’t just the teacher. I could see us arguing a bit about politics… I probably had a little more hope for this nation than he did. He might have thought my hope was naïve.

Do you still have hope for the future of our democracy?
I feel whiplash every day. I feel like either hope will win or fear it won’t. I never feel resignation. I am so heartened by the response to the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the response of many young people to the 2020 election. They were on the streets as the ballots were counted, standing up for democracy. I think people are tired, and I wonder if they are tired. But I mean, “We’re too young to be tired.”

” [To the class of 2022] I would say, ‘What are you going to do? What is your personal call to action? Instead of seeing…a foreclosure, here’s an opportunity.

If you were asked to give a commencement address to the Class of 2022, would that rallying cry be part of your message?
It would be. All generations have had challenges, and for this generation there is plenty to choose from. Will you save the planet? Or fight for things we thought we had already won? Young women never thought Roe vs. Wade was really going to be challenged—you give people rights and then you take them away? I think they are amazed. So I would say: what are you going to do? What is your personal call to action? Instead of seeing it as a foreclosure, here’s an opportunity. I would draw inspiration from African American history that tells us that there has never been a time when we weren’t challenged. We found a way to come together and say, okay, we may not live to see it, but we can fight for a better world, a better country.

What is your personal call to action?
I have worked for years with a social justice organization in Harlem called The Brotherhood Sister Sol. We provide holistic services to youth in Harlem and train them to be organizers. My other personal call to action is to share the knowledge I have learned and helped generate, with as wide a range of people as possible in a way that informs social movements. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to do in this book. It is not only a question of putting forward an academic theory: I am addressing the organizers, but also the writers and the artists.

What awaits you on the horizon?
The immediate next thing is a collection of essays that have already been published and two unreleased pieces coming out under the same cover. [from Norton]. And then as part of a series of little books about black thinkers and artists that will be published by Penguin, I’m writing one about Toni Morrison. And I say that to force myself to sit down and write it!

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