Farah Jasmine Griffin in conversation with Robin D.G. Kelley
Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature
by Farah Jasmine Griffin
published by W.W. Norton
Farah Jasmine Griffin has taken to her heart the phrase “read until you understand,” a line her father, who died when she was nine, wrote in a note to her. She has made it central to this book about love of the majestic power of words and love of the magnificence of Black life.
Griffin has spent years rooted in the culture of Black genius and the legacy of books that her father left her. A beloved professor, she has devoted herself to passing these works and their wisdom on to generations of students.
Here, she shares a lifetime of discoveries: the ideas that inspired the stunning oratory of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, the soulful music of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the daring literature of Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison, the inventive artistry of Romare Bearden, and many more. Exploring these works through such themes as justice, rage, self-determination, beauty, joy, and mercy allows her to move from her aunt’s love of yellow roses to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America.”
Griffin entwines memoir, history, and art while she keeps her finger on the pulse of the present, asking us to grapple with the continuing struggle for Black freedom and the ongoing project that is American democracy. She challenges us to reckon with our commitment to all the nation’s inhabitants and our responsibilities to all humanity.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative, and the coeditor of A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. She lives in Philadelphia.
Robin D.G. Kelley is a scholar history of social movements in the U.S., the African Diaspora, and Africa; black intellectuals; music and visual culture; Surrealism, Marxism, among other things. His essays have appeared in a wide variety of professional journals as well as general publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, The Nation, Monthly Review, New York Times, Color Lines, Counterpunch, Souls, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noir, Social Text ,The Black Scholar, Journal of Palestine Studies, and Boston Review, for which he serves as Contributing Editor. He is the author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (The Free Press, 2009); Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002); with Howard Zinn and Dana Frank, Three Strikes: The Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (Beacon Press, 2001); Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997); Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994); Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) [Vol. 10 of the Young Oxford History of African Americans series]; Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
Critical praise for Read Until You Understand
Griffin writes with learned poignance…Perfect for literature lovers, this survey and its moving insights will stick with readers well after the last page is turned.”
― Publishers Weekly (starred)
“An impassioned inquiry into the literary roots of Black culture…[I]nsightful, profound, and heartfelt.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Farah Jasmine Griffin is one of the few great intellectuals in our time! This wise and powerful memoir is a masterpiece. Griffin beautifully weaves her profound devotion to the life of the mind with her deep and abiding love of Black people and culture. Her magical words enchant and empower us like those of her towering heroes―Toni Morrison, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Wilhelmena Griffin!”
― Cornel West
“Farah Jasmine Griffin’s vivid, passionate, and powerful tribute to the great gifts of Black culture offers a deep dive into such fundamental human themes as freedom, justice, rage, death, beauty, and love, as lived and celebrated through her own experience, music, and creative art, and that of countless others in the community she embraces, from the legacy of Black history to her own family, her wide explorations of literature and art, and her close friendships with many artists and writers.”
― Elaine Pagels
“Read Until You Understand gives us Farah Jasmine Griffin in full and mighty sail. Keen cultural analysis, storytelling, and gorgeous lyricism combine in this book that makes a genre of its own. In recollection there is profound insight here; we have a portrait of a rich Black community in place and time, and of the teachers Griffin finds in neighborhood, family, books, and music. The sounds, words, and wisdom that Black folks make also make us, and no one expresses that with more beauty and power than Griffin. This book is a talking book, a teaching book, and a treasure.”
― Elizabeth Alexander
Sponsored by the City Lights Foundation