Before Farah Jasmine Griffin went to school, her father, a welder at the Sun Shipbuilding Company in Chester, Pa., Took her to the library and bookstores, and read and discussed African writers. Americans with it.
When she was in third grade, he gave her two paperback books: “The Little Red White and Blue Book: Revolutionary Quotations by Great Americans” and “Black Struggle: A History of the Negro in America”. On the title page of “Black Struggle” he wrote: “Jazzie read this book / You might not understand it / At first, but read it and understand. Dad.”
In 1972, Emerson Griffin died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Farah believes, because two white police officers, who thought he was drunk, delayed in taking him to the hospital.
Surrounded by a loving and caring family, Farah has never been a “dumped child”. And she cherished “a different kind of inheritance,” the love of Emerson Griffin’s books.
Professor of English, Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University and author, among other books, of “Who Set You Flowin ?: The African-American Migration Narrative” and “If You Can’t Be Free Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, ”Griffin combines autobiographical reflections and literary criticism in“ Read Until You Understanding, ”“ a series of meditations on fundamental questions ”designed to lead to“ the fullest fulfillment of our own humanity ”.
By analyzing specific poems, essays and novels in each chapter, she shows how readers like her can be “turned and excited by the tradition of black writing”.
Gifts to readers
Griffin gives readers gifts similar to those given to him by his father. She provides insightful interpretations from iconic African-American writers including Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Griffin’s friend and mentor. And she celebrates lesser-known writers, like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Early in life, we learn, poet Phyllis Wheatley attributed her authority to speak of freedom to her conversion to Christianity. But in “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley said her soul was “of steel” when it was “torn from the fancy seat of Afric”.
In his analysis of Toni Morrison’s model for a just society in “Home,” Griffin argues that love, care and self-awareness for those deprived of justice can – and should – motivate ” we continue to seek it ”.
The main message of “Read Till You Understand”, it seems clear, is that for African Americans the rage and resistance is not only legitimate, but urgent. American institutions, Griffin points out, “have certainly not turned out to be worthy of our hope.” In the Constitutional Convention, the freedom of blacks was sacrificed, “and would be sacrificed again and again and again”.
In the face of our rage
What does justice look like, Griffin asks, to offset “centuries of systemic abuse and violence? Griffin agrees with James Baldwin: “To be black in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be angry almost all the time.” And with Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr: “We cannot back down from our rage; it is the fire that lights the oven.
Griffin recognizes that some blacks internalize rage as self-destructive behavior; and some project it onto family members, neighbors and strangers. But, she insists, rage can also “be felt and expressed in disciplined emotions, organized and directed towards fighting injustice, imagining new possibilities and building new worlds.”
Rage can give rise to movements “and these movements in turn give rise to words, which in turn nourish other movements”.
That said, while Griffin is not at all certain that love can transform sociopaths like Dylan Roof, who murdered nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, she believes that “The force of love can overcome and destroy such evil … that love trumps fear … and inspires courage in the face of almost certain defeat.” She believes that in a world filled with ugliness and hate, God continues to bestow grace on those who have not earned it.
Griffin identifies with his mother, who expresses her love and gratitude to racial justice activists, as well as her concern for their safety. And who, “when the news gets unbearable”, listens to a CD of “Roy Hargrove With Strings”, goes to her garden, and commune with the spirit, Jazzie’s aunt, “who loved a yellow rose”.
Dr Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.