An Acclaimed Scholar Reflects on Black Life and Literature

A Black woman in a white shirt stands arms stretched on a college campus Credit: Ann Blake

Mellon Fellow in Residence Farah Jasmine Griffin has dedicated her life to understanding the brilliance of Black thinkers and artists. Through her own writing and teaching, she’s helping others do the same.

When Farah Jasmine Griffin was in third grade, her father gave her a paperback copy of Black Struggle: A History of the Negro in America, a book for young readers by Bryan Fulks, with a note written on the title page: “Jazzie read this book. You may not understand it at first. But read it and understand. … Baby read it until you understand.” Griffin, professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, has dedicated her life to understanding not only Black literature and history, but music, poetry, and art, while helping students and readers do the same.  

Her latest book, Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (Norton, 2021), is partly a memoir of her Philadelphia childhood and her father, whose passion for learning until his traumatic death, when he was forty-five and she was just nine, shaped the contours of Griffin’s intellectual and personal life. Autobiographical reflections are woven into meditations on racism, violence, beauty, love, and the ubiquity of music in Black life. The words of Black luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye, and above all, Toni Morrison, to whom the book is dedicated, guide the way.  

Dr. Griffin, a Mellon Fellow in Residence, spoke with us about her journey from young reader and writer to scholar, her advice for the class of 2022, and more.

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Griffin’s book title was inspired by an inscription from her late father.

Cover of the book Read Until You Understand

Is the title of your book a kind of assignment, and if so, what will readers learn?  
I think of it as a suggestion for a way of being, which is to have a life that is committed to trying to understand, and that reading is one way that we do that. I don't see understanding as a destination. I see it as a process. As curious and thoughtful people, we should be engaged in a process of understanding through information, through paying attention, through reading, through listening. We’re on that journey.  

What did you imagine yourself doing when you grew up?  
I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. 

Your father was your first teacher. Did his example shape your decision to pursue academia? 
It absolutely shaped my decision. I mean, one of my toys was a blackboard. And I always loved my teachers. To be practical, I thought, “Okay, I’m good with words, I’ll be a lawyer, maybe.” It never occurred to me that academia was something I’d end up doing until two of my professors [at Harvard] recommended that I think about it. I was writing a thesis and loving research, but I remember thinking, “What a self-indulgent career. To do the things I love for a living? That’s not painful enough!”  

If you could talk with your father about your book, what would those conversations be like? 
We would have had deep conversations. I’d introduce him to feminism and to the women writers who changed my life. I think he would have been excited to learn what I was learning, so there may have been a switch where he wasn’t only the teacher. I could see us arguing about politics a little bit... I probably had a little more hope for this nation than he did. He might have thought my hopefulness was naive. 

Do you remain hopeful about the future of our democracy? 
I feel whiplash on any given day. I feel like either hopefulness will win or maybe fear that it won’t. I never feel resignation. I’m so heartened by the response to George Floyd’s death in 2020 and by many young people’s response to the 2020 election. They were out in the streets when the ballots were being counted, out defending democracy. I do think that people get tired, and I wonder if they’re fatigued. But I want to say, “We are too young to be fatigued.”  

“ [To the class of 2022] I would say: ‘What are you going to do? What is your own personal call to action? Instead of seeing ... a foreclosure, here’s an opportunity.’” 

If you were asked to give a commencement address to the class of 2022, would that rallying cry be part of your message?  
It would be. All generations have had challenges, and for this generation, there’s plenty to choose from. Are you going to save the planet? Or fight for things we thought we already won? Young women never thought Roe v. Wade was really going to be challenged—you give people rights and then take them away? I think they are stunned. So, I would say: What are you going to do? What is your own personal call to action? Instead of seeing it as a foreclosure, here’s an opportunity. I would draw on African-American history that tells us there's never been a time when we weren't challenged. We found a way to get ourselves together and say, okay, we might not live to see it, but we can fight for a better world, a better country.

What is your personal call to action? 
I’ve been working for years with a social justice organization in Harlem called The Brotherhood Sister Sol. We provide holistic services for Harlem youth and train them to be organizers. My other personal call to action is to share the knowledge that I’ve learned, and helped to produce, with as broad a swath of people as possible in ways that might inform social movements. And that‘s one of the things I try to do in this book. This isn’t just to put forward an academic theory: I’m speaking to organizers, but also to writers and artists. 

What’s on the horizon for you? 
The immediate next thing is a collection of essays that were previously published and two unpublished pieces coming out under the same cover [from Norton]. And then as part of a series of short books about Black thinkers and artists to be published by Penguin, I’m writing one on Toni Morrison. And I say that to force myself to sit down and write it!