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

16 Feb

As we celebrate Black History Month, it seems only fitting that I recommend a book that focuses on the empowering understanding of African American literature, history, music, and art. Read Until You Understand by Farah Jasmine Griffin clearly is a compelling memoir and tribute to her beloved father, who died when she was nine, bequeathing her with a closet full of remarkable books about the Black experience written by and about prominent African Americans throughout history.  Griffin as taken to heart the phrase “read until you understand,” a line her father wrote in a note to her, and has devoted her life to reading and comprehending this collection of inherited books.

A Guggenheim fellow and professor of African American Studies at Columbia University,  she has devoted herself to passing these works and their wisdom on to generations of students. She shares a lifetime of discoveries such as 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 Phyllis Wheatley, James Baldwin, Langton Hughes and Toni Morrison, the inventive artistry of Romare Bearden and Gordon Parks, and many more. Exploring these works through such themes as justice, rage, self-determination, beauty, joy, and mercy allows her to help readers grapple with the ongoing struggle for Black freedom and the turmoil and dilemmas still facing African Americans today.  

This book is designed as a seminar, because for stretches Griffin is an encouraging literature professor surveying African American novels, poetry, and essays and charting their meaning. In other passages, she is a reflective memoirist looking back on a life of reading and loving and longing, and about growing up in a tightly woven Black community in south Philadelphia. And in other moments, she emerges as a cultural and political observer pinpointing the momentary bits of freedom that provide grace in Black lives.

These threads are bound together by the two people who loom over Griffin’s life and mind. One is Toni Morrison, whose novels Griffin first encountered as a child, propelling her to reflect on mercy, justice, rage, death and beauty. The other is Griffin’s late father, Emerson, who introduced her to Black literature and foundational texts of American civics, who taught her the Gettysburg Address, the preamble to the Constitution and the opening of the Declaration of Independence before she started school. He instilled in her a love of reading at a young age and encouraged her to be quizzical and to learn about the African Americans plight throughout U.S. history

As someone who developed an early love of books and reading, I can still fondly recall when the   weekly Bookmobile would visit our small rural elementary school in Vermont and I was allowed to freely roam about the stacks and choose three books that piqued my interest. I had a constant thirst for knowledge as a child and Read Until You Understand reminds me of those delightful early childhood days when the Bookmobile would visit and I was given free access to explore. I can understand why Griffin has such fond memories of the legacy her father left her and why she so anxiously wants to impart that knowledge on future generations.    

Written by:
Ethan Galvin
Information and Digital Services Librarian

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