Book Review: Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

With a solid array of books to her credit, Farah Jasmine Griffin has possibly written one of the artistic highlights in the national book marketplace this season. Her new book, Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, is the perfect storm of imagination, research, compassion, and intellectual analysis. It soars to a new level of wisdom, community love, and enlightenment for readers and critics alike.

Griffin, a professor of African-American literature, was the chair of the African-American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University as well as William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature. A PhD graduate of Yale university, she earned a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship and has written several outstanding books including Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative (1995), If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001), and Clawing at the Limits: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever (2008). However, her latest offering is constructed from a lifetime of reading and almost three decades of teaching African-American literature.

In this book of memoir, history, and art, she weighs the fundamental issues of politics and culture, and examining the challenges of “the ideals and failures of the U.S. experiment with democracy.” The Griffin approach to the critical themes within the volume puts “the promise of a living Constitution” under a microscope, exposing “the bitter truths of our history.”

“Along the way, through a new combination of memoir and readings of African-American literature, it touches upon the questions of mercy, the elusive quest of justice, the prevalence of beauty, even in the presence of death, and throughout, hope in the face of despair,” Griffin writes.

The genesis of Read Until You Understand started with the beginning of the Trump era after the 2016 presidential election and was completed during the time of the plague. In fact, the book comes from a frequent question by her father about reading with focus and concentration: “Read Until You Understand.” Each chapter formed a master class of reconfiguring the concept of America and their relationship to democracy and the nation’s place in the world. According to the author, she writes the book “demonstrates how a people have lived with style, brilliance, and beauty in the face of persistent crisis and catastrophe.”

Possibly one of the key chapters revolves around her close bond with her father, Emerson Maxwell Griffin, who believed teaching was an act of love, taking his young daughter to the public library, bookstores, and historic landscapes. Working as a welder at a shipbuilding company in Chester, Pennsylvania, her father taught her about the Founding Fathers and American nationalism, as well as Black icons such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Black Panther Party, and Angela Davis. He also educated her about the African freedom fighters as Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Lumumba.

Democracy translates into how well we treat each other and how well we live. A pivotal moment of the book occurs when Mr. Griffin suffered a bad headache but later it was discovered that a severe cerebral hemorrhage had stricken him. Two cops, summoned to the scene, tried to convince everyone the father was drunk. However, upon his hospitalization, her 45-year-old father died within a week. She was only nine. His short life with her made a big impact on her.

The author inherited her father’s love of books and jazz. She examines the value and quality of writers such as Douglass, Brooks, Wright, Hughes, Ellison, and vBaldwin. One of her favorites, Toni Morrison’s work, especially The Bluest Eye, received close scrutiny and analysis. As Morrison asked: “Do we mirror and echo the values of the larger society or do we live by an alternative set of values?”

With the concept of justice, Griffin quotes Justice Advocate Dr. Fania Davis: “Justice is love correcting that which stands against love? How do we heal from structural and interpersonal trauma?” Throughout the book, she asked tough, serious questions, which challenge how we think about themselves, about community, about our nation.

In another crucial chapter, “Rage and Resistance,” Griffin explains the domestic and community violence with a spoonful of common sense: “Before the rage, we are weary, we are hurt, we are fed up. In the same way that depression makes you tired ,.. Sometimes the rage has already been there, seething, turned within. Some of us internalize it in the form of self-destructive behaviors; other of us project it onto our neighbors, classmates, spouses, partners, sons and daughters.”

Griffin scores in a similar vein with intellectual clarity on subjects like death, the transformative potential of love, self-determinism, and the cultivation of beauty. Each chapter is a feast for the mind. Like all masterworks, she weaves a spell of spiritual and cultural knowledge, fortified with uncommon truths and revelations.

Identity, activism, and confronting challenges. Pay attention to her skill with image and word, of tone and rhythm, essentially poetic yet penetrating. Like her astute comments on beauty: It is a source of solace and pleasure. Sometimes it emerges after we have been forced to confront pain. It is to be found in the most mundane and quotidian aspects of our lives: a garden or a single flower, a flourishing houseplant, an intricately woven textile, a cobalt blue bottle, a Miles Davis solo, Aretha singing “Day Dreaming,” the rare stillness and silence provided by a quick but weighty summer storm, or the luxury of reading a sentence that leaves us breathless.”

With its singular beauty, Griffin’s Read Until You Understand will leave you panting while craving for more of her highly concentrated wit and wisdom. This is a must-buy.

Read W. W. Norton & Company’s description of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature.

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