African American literature is both a passion and a calling for Griffin, who is the first chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia, as well as the director of his Institute for African American Studies. and English teacher. Her expertise is evident – sometimes too much – as she moves from a simple memoir to a scholar, presenting a litany of readings that feels directly drawn from her programs. Sometimes passages read as if they were transcribed from a lecture. And, while Griffin’s quick detour into music stirs nostalgia for those of us familiar with 1970s R&B, it feels as though it was perhaps more rewarding for her to write than to read. .
Gaps aside, a book like “Read Until You Understand” takes courage to produce. Griffin tackles two challenges: How do you contextualize, to your voice, the work of the literary giants? Any sentence you put within reach of a Jesmyn Ward is likely to be disappointing. And how do you engage the reader in a memory of the founding moments of your academic life that ultimately reveals little about who you have become?
The book includes flashes of brilliance. âI remember one of their dirty shoes on my mom’s white sheets,â Griffin writes of the white cops who took his dad for treatment after his stroke. “I heard the bed frame creak when a foot landed on the mattress and they started to lift it.” This evocative imagery foreshadows the emotional wreckage that turns the household upside down and provides a captivating transition to a reflection on mercy through the writings of Wheatley, Morrison and Charles Chesnutt.
Nowhere is this sparkle more apparent than in the chapter on death, which is no small subject, and which has of course been picked up by writers over the millennia.
“He was there Friday night, and then he wasn’t,” Griffin writes of his father. Its unadorned pace and tone plunges us into the nightmare of losing a parent. This is perhaps one of the strongest chapters because Griffin knows death so much, having lost a sister and three of his sister’s four children. âEveryone dies,â she wrote. âBut black death in America is too often premature, violent, spectacular. The special nature of the black death haunts black writing, as it haunts the nation.
Examining Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings on the death of a college friend in âBetween the World and Me,â Griffin notes: âPrince Jones is the literary son of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Tod Clifton. Separated by more than half a century, both are beautiful, charismatic and promising. Both are shot dead by the police.
His writings on love are just as evocative. She introduces the subject by telling the sad but sweet story of her parents’ love, then moves on to James Baldwin: âHe doesn’t romanticize black life or the conditions under which black people love each other. In fact, he explains them in harsh and relentless detail. These circumstances are what makes love so much deeper, as miraculous as it is everyday.
Griffin’s evangelism of black literature does what the best sermons do: it sends you back to the scriptures – Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker, and others – to discover or rediscover, ponder, and cherish again.