The Washington Post Sunday

To grasp the tension and beauty of Black life, a father told his daughter: ‘Read’

- Carlos Lozada Twitter: @CarlosLoza­daWP

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s “Read Until You Understand” feels like multiple books captured in a single volume, yet none could quite survive without the others. For stretches, Griffin is an encouragin­g literature professor, surveying African American novels, poetry and essays and charting their meaning. (“The book is designed as a seminar,” she writes, and much of it feels that way.) In other passages, she is a reflective memoirist, looking back on a life of reading and loving and longing, “an autobiogra­phical meditation,” as she puts it, about growing up in a tightly woven Black community in South Philadelph­ia. And in yet other moments, she emerges as a cultural and political observer, pinpointin­g the “momentary bits of freedom” that provide grace in Black lives, “a hint of the broader freedom for which we still struggle.”

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. (Morrison’s novel “Sula,” she recalls, injected the written word into her consciousn­ess “in the way that others imbibed the words of the Bible.”) The other is Griffin’s late father, Emerson, who introduced his daughter 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, while also nudging her to read “Black Struggle” by Bryan Fulks in the third grade. “Jazzie read this book . . . . Baby read it until you understand,” he wrote on the title page.

Together, Emerson and Morrison “shaped the way I saw and thought about the world,” Griffin writes. Her father laid out the tension he perceived at the heart of the Black experience in America, the struggle to love a country that does not seem to love him back. “He exposed me to our nation’s founding fathers and the ideals they espoused so I would understand the enormity of . . . the betrayal,” Griffin explains. And Morrison — along with the other exponents of American letters and Black political thought appearing throughout the book — has helped her wrestle with that tension ever since. “In the absence of my father, African American literature served as a constant spiritual and intellectu­al companion,” Griffin writes. That absence came too soon; Griffin’s father died of a brain hemorrhage when he was only 45 years old and she was 9.

Griffin does not resolve this tension, but that is not really the goal of this slim and quietly captivatin­g book. True to her profession — Griffin teaches comparativ­e literature at Columbia University and is chair of African American and African diaspora studies — she’d rather leave any resolution to her readers and students. So long, that is, as they understand that literature can bear witness “to both the hypocrisy and the promise of the nation” and that it has the power “to remind us of another’s humanity by touching our own.”

Her father’s death in 1972 recurs in “Read Until You Understand,” for the void it left but also for its circumstan­ces. Emerson was transporte­d from their home to the hospital in a police vehicle rather than an ambulance; his unsecured stretcher slid around with every sharp turn. Though eulogies and family lore would remember his final words as “Take me home to Muzzy” (his nickname for Mena, Griffin’s mother) Griffin knows it was a different cry, “Oh Muzzy, my head!”

A child cannot forget such a moment, but life insists on reminders. When 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a spinal injury in the back of a Baltimore police van, Griffin and her mother called each other, “both immediatel­y snatched back to that Philadelph­ia night when the three of us — she, my father, and I — were in the back of the paddy wagon.”

Griffin sought to understand her father’s beliefs. He was a Black nationalis­t, she concludes, whose politics “started out like Douglass and ended up like Malcolm,” first seeing America as a work in progress and later lamenting it as irredeemab­le. But she knows that conviction­s are complicate­d, not least her father’s and her own. His bouts of bitterness about the United States — “My country, ’tis of thee, land of no liberty,” he would sing — brushed up against his admiration for the founding documents and his “disdainful awe” for U.S. military power. Above all, he taught Griffin that reading and resistance are inextricab­le, that “we march, we stand up (or sit down) for what we believe, and we read.”

In this book as survey course, Griffin highlights Black writers and activists simultaneo­usly lured by America’s ideals and repelled by the hollowness of their practice. She recalls Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” in which he offers hope for the founding ideals of justice and equality, even as he wonders if the Declaratio­n’s principles will ever be “extended to us.” Anti-slavery activist David Walker’s 1829 manifesto, “Appeal in Four Articles; Together With a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America” is modeled on the Constituti­on, even as it indicts the cruelties inflicted on Black Americans. And the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program is written as a “hybrid,” Griffin notes, of the Declaratio­n of Independen­ce and the Bill of Rights. “The Panthers thus demonstrat­e the hypocrisy of the national creed,” Griffin writes, even while “situating the contempora­ry struggle for Black freedom squarely within the revolution­ary origins of the United States.”

Griffin shares that ambivalenc­e. “Black Americans’ understand­ing of America is too realistic, too cautious, too conscious of the lessons of history, to possess an unbridled patriotism,” she writes. “We know that at best, our country is a work in progress and that the battle to perfect it is an uphill climb.” But engaging that battle is its own patriotism, too.

Griffin lingers on Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” an 18th-century poem once reviled by Black thinkers for its expression­s of gratitude for slavery, though later reinterpre­ted as initiating a Black prophetic tradition. (“This seems to me,” Griffin writes, “a major dilemma of the Black artist and intellectu­al in the West; in order to be heard by those who oppress you, you must first accept the false premise that justifies your oppression.”) She revisits her undergradu­ate obsession with 19th-century poet Frances E.W. Harper, particular­ly “Bury Me in a Free Land” (“Make it among earth’s humblest graves/ But not in a land where men are slaves”). More personally, she compares her parents’ loving relationsh­ip to those in James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” works that “bear witness to the miracle of Black love” amid so much injustice. This is a life lived among books, then reinterpre­ted through them.

But always, Griffin returns to Morrison. She provides brief thematic overviews of her fiction, from the contrastin­g depictions of death, whether haunting or transcende­nt, in “Beloved” and “Sula,” to the varying conception­s of justice, whether vengeful or restorativ­e, in “Song of Solomon” and “Home.” Throughout Morrison’s work Griffin identifies what she calls an “ethic of care,” a communal love that gives and affirms life. In “The Bluest Eye,” an ill child regards her mother’s love as “thick and dark as Alaga syrup,” and Griffin revels in Morrison’s subtle depiction of darkness as loving, not frightenin­g. In “Home,” a Black child mutilated by a White eugenicist is later cared for by tough older women in her community, recovering into something new and strong. “Two months surrounded by country women who loved mean had changed her,” Morrison writes. Griffin describes the child’s new freedom as “a mental state, one that she must claim for herself.”

Perhaps Griffin seizes on this ethic of care because she has not just read it until she understood — she has lived it as well. It appears in her visits to bookstores with her father and fabric stores with her mother; in her days listening to songs and conversati­on in a small family restaurant that she describes with such devotion that I wished I could have eaten there myself; in her time in the family’s urban garden, a space that, for the women around her, “mirrored their own lovely softness amid the harsh concrete world they inhabited.” These are the book’s most memorable passages, perhaps more so for their relative scarcity.

Upon her father’s death, Griffin writes, she and her mother were enveloped by support from their community, the family and neighbors who sustained and protected them. “I experience­d this as a thick blanket, covering us and holding us close,” she recalls. Maybe it was thick as syrup, too. Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.

 ?? NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Since childhood, Toni Morrison’s novels have been a primary influence on “the way I saw and thought about the world,” writes Farah Jasmine Griffin.
NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST Since childhood, Toni Morrison’s novels have been a primary influence on “the way I saw and thought about the world,” writes Farah Jasmine Griffin.
 ?? By Farah Jasmine Griffin. Norton. 257 pp. $26.95 ?? READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature
By Farah Jasmine Griffin. Norton. 257 pp. $26.95 READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States