February marked the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. Since the killing of the 17-year-old, the raw outpouring of public grief and rage in Black communities has created new—and at times discordant—social movements targeting racial discrimination. But there has also been a backlash in the struggle over how the US public should learn and remember its violent history.
In an essay for New York magazine’s special issue on the decade since Martin’s murder, Anna Malaika Tubbs commented that the burden of being a Black mother is inextricable from the nebulous hope of getting justice: “The ritual of a Black mother’s public grief after her child is stolen from this Earth is an American obsession, however numbing.” Attempting to address and dismantle this obsession is partly what fuels both the uprisings of the last decade and the reactions against them. What defines the difference in rhetoric between the activists and their opposition is not just how we were taught history but also how we analyze the most brutal chapters of our contemporary circumstances. Among the many crises this country faces, one that seems especially potent right now is: How exactly do we read America?
“He was there on Friday night, and then he was not,” writes professor Farah Jasmine Griffin in Read Until You Understand. She is referring to her father, who died at the age of 45, when she was just 9. “How do we recover from grief through reading?” Griffin asks. Her answer is that, through the “profound wisdom of Black life and literature” (to quote a portion of the book’s subtitle), one might find some measure of fortitude and solace.
Fusing literary history and memoir, Griffin argues that reading is a sort of reparative practice, and that by looking at one’s own life and literature side by side, we not only get a better grasp of the world but we may also start to develop resilience against the depredations of society.
Born in 1963, Griffin grew up in a working-class part of South Philadelphia, a multiracial community where people’s social lives, in her experience, remained highly stratified and segregated. During her childhood, she attended Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School, which was predominantly African American, while the Italian and Irish students went to St. Edmund Elementary School across the street. Griffin’s mother, Mena, worked in garment factories, while her father, Emerson Maxwell Griffin, worked for the post office. For both parents, education was the means to secure a future governed by an ethic of justice. Griffin’s father, with the help of the GI Bill, went to vocational school and filled their home with books, which was how his daughter first encountered Black literary history in writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Ann Petry. Scholarship, Griffin implies, is a lifelong practice that in her case was flooded by Black thinkers, an intergenerational community that existed outside of her school and that instilled in her the will to find inspiration on the page.
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The book’s opening chapter, “Legacy, Love, Learning,” introduces us to Griffin’s studious beginnings: not just Philadelphia, the epicenter of American libraries and a city with one of the most enduring free Black populations in the United States, but even more importantly her father, who “believed teaching was an act of love.” Looking at literary works from colonial America to the present, and interweaving stories from her own life, Griffin explores familiar themes of Black American history, such as the Great Migration, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, through an examination of texts that include the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program and the magazine Black World (originally called Negro Digest), which covered events and social life for African Americans. Even as a young reader embarking on this personal syllabus, Griffin’s sensitivity to Black internationalism was noticeable: “These publications…showed that Black thinkers articulated a sense of Black history and culture that stretched beyond the borders of the United States,” she writes. What she grasped, in her most formative years, was that there was no paucity of Black intellectual thought.
Throughout Read Until You Understand, Griffin formulates a narrative that moves effortlessly between history and literature, and an ethics of forgiveness emerges in her reflections. In her discussion of Phillis Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” published in 1773, Griffin relays Black scholars’ criticisms of the content of the poem, most notably its “representation of Africa as unenlightened and pagan.” Wheatley’s opening line proclaims her gratitude that “mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” Griffin takes issue with the poet’s assumption that her forced migration from the African continent to North America was her only path to liberation. Nevertheless, she exercises grace toward the last lines of Wheatley’s poem:
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Here, the verse provides spiritual resolve and some comfort: that no matter a person’s racial background, they too can find salvation. But Griffin also acknowledges that the stakes for what it meant for African Americans to engage in scriptural storytelling—before and after Wheatley published her poem—were actively contested. During the 19th century, enslavers barred the enslaved not just from all forms of reading and education but even from being taught how to read. The tightening literacy laws and the ongoing attack on funding public education today are all part of the same process of dispossession that has harmed Black lives throughout history. Yet despite these barriers, Black creative workers have continued to merge Black working-class aesthetics with literary traditions that not only face the pain of history, but also engage in the reparative work the present requires.
Read Until You Understand is structured as an intellectual and personal journey—one that unlocks literature’s power to provide solace to the mourner and alleviate pain—but it also gets to the gist of who Griffin is as a scholar: someone who wants to engage with her education outside of the classroom. In “Black Freedom and the Idea(l) of America,” she writes about how Black poets and writers were crafting freedom in their narratives. Griffin cites the poet and songwriter Gil Scott Heron’s “Winter in America,” quoting his contention that “Democracy is ragtime on the corner / Hoping for some rain.” Here she not only calls into question the sapless and empty promise of American freedom but also—by examining how, in the post-civil-rights era, the United States continues to be unequal—shows how it remains unable to address the dispossession of Indigenous people and Black Americans.
But Griffin doesn’t stop there. Instead, she takes us to the 19th century as well, placing Frederick Douglass at the center of her conception of a more honest and true freedom. Douglass serves as a familiar icon, a formerly enslaved person who not only learned to read but became a visible and vocal advocate for abolition. Moving through his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” Griffin navigates the intricacies of Douglass’s prose, affect, and reach. He was not merely speaking as a formerly enslaved person in the United States but making the case for “justice-seeking and freedom-loving people.” Douglass’s quest for justice was also international in practice. In 1889, decades after Emancipation, he was appointed US minister to Haiti and served in Port-au-Prince until 1891. During his brief tenure there, Douglass hoped to forge a new diplomacy between the Caribbean nation and his home country. Yet, as he came to realize that the United States was more interested in establishing a military presence than an impartial political partnership, he became disillusioned and resigned from his diplomatic post. This matters insofar as Douglass saw the limits of US diplomacy and, by extension, its electoral politics. In one of his less-cited texts, his 1859 article on abolition titled “The Ballot and the Bullet,” Douglass presciently argued that if the “ballot” was not “heard and heeded,” then only the “bullet” would be.
Griffin’s memoir, at its heart, is an invitation to dive into an expansive list of progressive African American intellectuals, and she draws from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage—works that argue, Griffin writes, that “the ultimate crime is to have been born Black in America.” Of course, we must ask: Who considers this a crime, and how does that criminality play out? The answer, Griffin contends, boils down to the Enlightenment. Discussing Wright’s Native Son, she asserts that “Black people as a whole are victims of American capitalism.” Here Griffin takes on liberalism directly, arguing that Wright and other Black writers used literature to illustrate how “the judicial system, the government, the police, the banks, and the press” are engineered to “exploit the Black poor.” She uses Wright’s text to criticize a government and a liberal society where those in authority wield their power against racial minorities, writing that “Wright thus indicts the United States for crimes against Black native sons.”
In the face of a society that continues to carry out state-sanctioned violence, Griffin advocates for repair, noting that “activists have argued for restorative justice to replace the punitive paradigm, which governs so much of American society.” Rather than explicitly lay claim to abolition, Griffin cites the scholar Zaheer Ali and others to “imagine what a society governed by an ethic of care, a society devoted to restoring and repairing those who have been harmed, giving them the space for transformation, might look like.”
We tend to think of rage as an abstract, spontaneous outgrowth of irrationality, not realizing how perennial and sustained it can be. Even in moments of extreme loss, the fury can be cast in a new light. Griffin notes that Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, in their literature, used death as a tool to explore transformation and transcendence, respectively. For the former, she points to the poem “Dear Lovely Death” to show how the transition into death provided some African Americans with an escape from suffering; for the latter, she shows how, in the novel Beloved, transcendence emerges when the Black people who remain behind and whose lives are haunted by perpetual death enter into a sublime state. This is also related to how Black writers today confront the long list of African American deaths. In her astute analysis of Samaria Rice, the mother of the slain adolescent Tamir Rice, Imani Perry noted, “We have grown clinical in our repetition of how all these incidents of police killings take place. The evidence is stated and lined up, the protests happen, the failure to prosecute or to convict is expected.” That absence of justice for African Americans is transcendent, transformative, but mostly painful for those who mourn their kin.
Much of Read Until You Understand is centered on Griffin’s premature loss of her father and how that moment helped her understand the ways that Black Americans collectively reckon with their grief. She recalls that she spent hours in bookstores with her father growing up, and she also notes that “Morrison’s novel, and then works by other Black women, provided other female voices of authority, in addition to my mother’s and my aunts’.” The communal voices of Black women were key to how Griffin lamented her father’s death, but more importantly, she emphasizes that the history of loss for Black folks is a narrative of reminiscence. In a chapter on grace, Griffin writes: “Even under slavery and the conditions of captivity that follow its formal end, the human soul longs for beauty and seeks grace. For Black people, grace most often manifests in momentary bits of freedom…for which we still struggle.”
Buoyed by love and curiosity, Griffin explains how imperative reading is to find the tools to narrate the uncomfortable, but also to provide a way to tell our own stories openly and honestly. What Read Until You Understand provides is a broad inquisition into how to think alongside the people and writers we admire. Her reverence for James Baldwin is grounded in his ability to detail the delicious beauty of Black love. For Griffin, Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk offers a gimlet-eyed perspective on Black humanity and harmony. Speaking about the visible acts of solidarity that the novel’s African American protagonists encounter as they navigate life in a segregated New York City, Griffin writes: “An orthodox Jewish landlord rents Fonny and Tish a loft when other white landlords refuse to do so; a group of Spanish restaurant owners and workers feed the young couple; an Italian storeowner defends them against a racist police officer.” By highlighting the camaraderie in Baldwin’s novel, Griffin urges us to think about how such works can provide a bulwark against cynicism.
For me, Read Until You Understand is not merely a lyrical syllabus of Black American intellectual thought; it also carries a torch for the Black working class, which finds beauty in the hair salon, in one another’s homes, at the dance hall. The book’s strength comes from its bibliography as much as from its voice, especially when Griffin exalts the literary greats, from James Baldwin to Lorraine Hansberry. Griffin gives us space to transport ourselves from Black literature to her memoir, allowing her readers to understand both more deeply by finding peace through storytelling.
Memoirs stand apart from biographies by opening us up to the inexorable pull that family, friends, and memory have in how we see the world. It is this personal touch that brings to life texts and history that might seem more inert. Read Until You Understand is at its core a modern Black memoir that draws out in astonishing detail the collision between growing up in segregated America and Black dreaming. The relationship between rhetoric and life, the incarcerated and the free, moves from fiction to life, accentuating just how precarious African American living can be.
For Griffin, death is not a bookend to pass through either. She knows that Black folk writing can be a cudgel for imagination and remembrance. Even in the context of unspeakable loss, we persist. “This is what we believe: that our dead beloveds are always with us, an energy that holds all they were and surrounds us. We want to believe this because we must.” Her heartbreaking and evocative prose not only captures what it means to sit with grief but also how narration can provide a levee against the flood of bereavement. Griffin makes a case for Black endurance, but more importantly for our perennial quest for emancipation. The timbre of Griffin’s work is interlaced with sorrow and solace—not just with trauma. In a way, she is calling for a bold and propitious (re)reading.