Saturday, September 11, 2021
Friday, September 10, 2021
As some of you may know, I wrote a book about bad men and creativity, where I noted how rebellious, outspoken, militant, and even troubling men sometimes serve as important muses for writers and other creators. I probably could have written a full-length book about the works inspired by black fathers -- a subject or set of subjects that have been motivating forces within and leading to many important works.
I was recently thinking about three figures: Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, and Farah Jasmine Griffin.
In different ways, they were deeply influenced by their fathers, more specifically their thinking about their fathers, and what's especially noteworthy is that they were quite young when they lost these men in their lives. Ellison lost his father when he was three years ago. Malcolm lost his father when he was six. Griffin was nine when she lost her father.
Those losses were devastating.
But, those children and then adults always kept their fathers in mind. Read Arnold Rampersad's biography of Ellison, Les Payne and Tamara Payne's biography of Malcolm, and Griffin's memoir Read Until You Understand, and you'll witness folks who are working with and off of their father's memories for decades.
Ellison's father loved literature and various authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, hence he named his son Ralph Waldo Ellison. In commentary on that biography of Ellison, Hilton Als wrote that "Rampersad points out that the loss of Ellison’s father remained a wound in his consciousness for the rest of his life." Fathers and grandfathers pop up in notable ways in Ellison's creative works, and he reflects on his father in essays.
Earl Little, Malcolm's father, died in 1931. Family members, including one of Malcolm's older brothers who was there to hear the report and see the body, accepted that their father Earl Little died as a result of a tragic accident. But Malcolm, hearing rumors to the contrary, refused to accept the incident as an accident. It was his opinion, expressed throughout his life, that his father was killed by the Klan.
For years, I believed Malcolm's account, but after the evidence presented by Payne and Payne in their biography that drew on reports from the family, I am inclined to believe their finding that it was indeed a terrible accident that led to Earl Little's death. I do understand though why Malcolm (as well as many others and me) needed to believe that the father of this great black nationalist leader was killed by white domestic terrorists.
But even if people cannot agree on that fact, we can consider that the loss of a father so early caused Malcolm all kinds of pain and may have led him to seek out father figures, finding one most notably in Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm had a deep, deep connection to Muhammad and for many years considered himself a most devoted follower of the leader. In fact, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was initially going to be a book-length tribute to Muhammad. During the processes of interviews with Alex Haley, however, Malcolm separated from Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and the autobiography took a different turn.
I've written about Griffin's book and noted the influence of his life on who she was as a childhood reader. Today, she is an accomplished scholar of American and African American literature, jazz, and cultural history. She points out in her memoir the motivating force of her father's early lessons, annotations in books, and book collection, which she studied even more fervently when he died.
For Ellison, Malcolm, and Griffin, these men Lewis Ellison, Earl Little, and Emerson Griffin, respectively, were crucial muses.
I could add another one to this mix. Years ago, I read Lewis Porter's biography of John Coltrane. In 1939 Trane, who was 12, lost his father. Porter draws a link between what Coltrane lost and his early engagements with music:
It was just at this time [when Coltrane's father died] that he began to take up music, playing first the alto horn, then the clarinet, and from the beginning he is said to have practiced continuously, obsessively, as if practicing would bring his father back, or maybe help him to forget his father--as if, by succeeding in music, he could restore stability and control to his life. Perhaps, in a sense, music became his father substitute" (17).
Listen, I certainly don't want to over-romanticize things. I'm not suggesting that losing a central black man in your life at an early age is an advantage. It's not. It's definitely not. There are countless examples, way too many instances of black children losing their fathers and then the child continuing to lose and fall into deep despair. And poverty.
The point here is to consider that in some prominent cases we have records of writers, other creators, or their biographers highlighting how black father loss and black father yearning affected consequential thinking and pathways taken by various African Americans. And, the outcomes remind us just how important the presence of these loving, creative, and guiding forces were for their children and families.In these cases too, we have opportunities to consider what the loss meant, and with Griffin in particular, we get to hear how a black father's presence and then absence shaped and influenced her approached to education over time. Researchers have made it possible for us to consider what the loss of black fathers meant for Ellison and Malcolm.
Thursday, September 9, 2021
|Artwork by Julienne Alexander for Criminal|
Look, this week in African American literary studies might as well have been known as McCaskill week. It turns out that over the last couple of days, four of our African American literature courses focused on the Criminal podcast episode "In Plain Sight," featuring scholar Barbara McCaskill discussing the lives and great escape of William and Ellen Craft's escape.
I covered the episode in two of my classes. My colleague Donavan Ramon covered it in his class. And my colleague Elizabeth Cali covered the episode in her class. We're talking somewhere around 80 students in African American literature classes covering a podcast on clever runaway slaves.
I've followed Criminal for a few years now, and I was surprised and delighted to be driving in my car one day back in 2017, and hear McCaskill's voice on the episode. I was aware of her work for years, and so I was pleased to stumble across her talking about African American literature and former enslaved people in the context of this show on criminals. The presentation here shifted the view of "criminal."
The "In Plain Sight" episode has McCaskill and Criminal host Phoebe Judge retelling the lives of the Craft's. The two of them escaped bondage through a most inventive scheme. Ellen Craft dressed up as a white man and pretended to be sick and injured, while William Craft played the role of a servant assisting the ill master.
Even though I knew that they escaped, the storytelling by McCaskill and Judge had me wondering and worried as I listened to the episode. The excitement and intrigue that's presented as well as the important historical information led me to begin assigning the episode in my classes. It has been a mainstay over the last few years.
Each year, we read excerpts from Frederick Douglass's Narrative. We read poems about slavery by various black poets. We look at runaway slave ads. We study various visual images concerning slavery and abolition. And, we listen to McCaskill and Judge on "In Plain Sight."
McCaskill elevates the idea of the black literary scholar as storyteller. Too, she offers the new possibility of blending African American literary studies and podcasting. A few years ago, I had not considered including podcasts on my syllabi for my unit on slavery. But now, I couldn't imagine excluding this episode.
At the end of each unit, I do a poll on what aspect of what we've covered the students enjoyed most. The Narrative? Poetry? Visual images? The episode of Criminal? There's really no contest at this point. The clear winner the last few years has been "In Plain Sight."
Yesterday, I saw Cali and Ramon in the hallway outside our offices, and Cali noted in passing that her students had just covered the episode. I knew that Ramon and I were both covering it. So what a cool coincidence that Cali was too, and that we all three covered it in the same week and span of days.Related
Thursday, September 2, 2021
Toni Morrison is one of our most critically acclaimed writers, and her works have been covered extensively in all kinds of ways. So I was surprised and pleased based on the unique way that Farah Jasmine Griffin covered Sula (1973) in her book Read Until You Understand. Most articles I read about Morrison's work incline me to think about why and how the novel matters to literary scholars.
Griffin's treatment, however, prompted me to consider how the novel might have affected the thinking of a young black girl, as Griffin reflects on discovering Sula when she was about thirteen years old. "The girls on my block," wrote Griffin, "spent summer afternoons braiding hair, jumping rope, and exchanging books." One of the books that came into the young Griffin's possession was Morrison's novel.
Griffin even remembers and presents the 1975 paperback cover of the version of the novel that she had. She mentions the various books she read and her thoughts on them. "But Sula...Sula changed my life," she writes. Morrison was not the first black woman Griffin had read. Yet, "Sula felt like the beginning of a new knowing." She goes on to note:
Here was a world in some ways familiar and in other ways completely different from the one I knew. Here was a language that sounded like the language the women around me spoke, but presented in a way so that I heard its imagery, its beauty, its rhythm. This was the beginning of the written word entering into my consciousness in the way that others imbibed the words of the Bible. From here on, more than any scribe of the Old or New Testament, Morrison would inform my understanding of my family, my history, and the nation that I called home. She would also shape my voice, my juvenile attempts to use language to describe the world around me (198).
There's so much to consider here. But let's first fast forward forty years past the mid-1970s and consider that a little girl inspired by Morrison has become this highly accomplished scholar of African American literature, and she was the inaugural chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University.
You can hang out with guys who cover jazz, rap, or sports, and you'll hear them make these seemingly far out declarations about major figures in a field. Like, remember that time many years ago, when one basketball player said that God put us on Earth so that we'd have the chance to watch Kobe Bryant play basketball. Or, consider someone saying that the most religious thing a human can do is listen to Coltrane's music. And on and on.
I thought of some of that when I considered Griffin noting that Morrison was more than any of those folks writing in the Old or New Testament. Yes! And whew.
That passage from Griffin and her writing about Sula in general had me thinking about what effect Morrison could have on a young mind, what it could mean with her work "entering into my consciousness," to use Griffin's words, at a young age.
I was previously writing about Griffin's discussion of music in the environment of her youth, and now I'm thinking that perhaps Morrison was an influence on the scholar-memoirist working to describe all aspects of that richness of culture and human interactions in Philadelphia during the 1970s and 1980s.
Later, reflecting on the environment where she grew up, Griffin observes that "we lived in a complex, challenging world that did not center whites--they were a marginal, if ultimately powerful, presence." She realized that her environment resembled "the world of Morrison's novels." In particular, a central black neighborhood in Sula, points Griffin, "is full of fascinating characters, drama, humor, tragedy, and a multitude of beauty" (200).
These days, when we speak of young black readers, we rightly discuss them in the context of young adult fiction (YA). It's a field that has become increasingly prevalent over the last decade or two. That's really important.
At the same time though, Griffin's discussion of Sula gives us reason to think about what it might mean to put Morrison in the hands of even more young black folks. Or, think of it this way: Read Until You Understand is one possibility for what could happen when an early teen black girl discovering Toni Morrison.Related:
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
One of my favorite sections in Farah Jasmine Griffin's new book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (2021) is chapter 8 where she's discussing music. In a book that's primarily about reading and books, it was fascinating to come across this treatment of singers, instrumentalists, and so forth.
"Here is a departure," writes Griffin to open the chapter, "a brief detour, from the world of books to the landscape of sound." She notes that music was so ubiquitious in the Philadelphia of her youth that she sometimes took it for granted.
In the chapter, she reflects on the ways music "accompanied everything we did: household chores, family gatherings, sitting outside in the summertime, cookouts in the park." She mentions the radio stations playing all kinds of sounds. "We didn't turn the music on, because it was always on," writes Griffin.
What most intrigued me was her mentioning the ways music was central to so many conversations and idea-sharing and exchanges. Folks in her world debated music, such as the shift in Miles Davis's work, or how the genres were associated with different people. Her dad was into debop, and his mother turned to Gladys Knight.
At one point, her family owned a resutrant, and the jukebox that was already there included music from "another era," a time period that was much earlier than Griffin's birth. With a mix of old and new songs on the jukebox, she was gaining an expansive sense of sounds, of black music.
A varied cast of people frequented the family resturant, and music was a uniting force. "We all--gangsters and factory workers, politicans and entrepreneurs, Christians and Muslims--we all listened to and dance to and argued about and discussed the same music" (179).
Based on her scholarship on jazz, I knew Griffin was into the music. But Read Until You Understand gave me a much broader view of her musical environmental where she emerged. More important, I think her chapter on music serves a purpose similar to autobiographical narratives where black writers discuss their engagements with books.
Maybe the memoirs of musicians highlight their interests in music, but it was an unusual experience for me to read a black literary scholar reflecting on her background with sounds and witnessing various people talking about, enjoying, and experiencing black music.Related:
Sunday, August 29, 2021
With the publication of her newest book, Farah Jasmine Griffin joins Deborah McDowell, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Imani Perry, and various scholars of African American literature who've produced memoirs and autobiographical writings.Here's a roundup of some works:
These stories of how information and ideas were passed along by black men give me unique views of the production of knowledge in our communities. Farah Jasmine Griffin extends my interest in the subject with her book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. Griffin's father died when she was nine years old, but he had already instilled a sense of wonder concerning books, reading, and writing with his daughter.
Most notably, not long before he died, Emerson Maxwell Griffin thought he was going to be sent to prison, so he gave his child books and scribbed notes in the front and margins. In one book, he informed her: "Jazzie, read this book / You may not understand it / At first. But read it and understand" (36). In another book, he wrote a note: "Baby read it until you understand" (36).
A short time later, he died, and, as Griffin points out, "the notes in the books became even more precious. His hand had touched them, his distinct, careful handwriting contained something of him. He had cared enough to write notes to me" (37).
Griffin recalls lessons here and there that she picked up from her dad at a young age. Losing him so soon but having the books in the house that he owned meant that she was determined to read those works. (She also learned quite a bit from her mother and others, which I'll take up in a future post).
The young Griffin learned that her father held Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X in high esteeem, so she did as well. His interest in those figures led her to read about them and learn more about their related and different worldviews.
Griffin's father taught her "by word and example" that "reading and study were central to our strugle as a people and to my overall development as a human being" (36). Reading the books her father read led her to more and more books and authors, and following those various lines of study led her to seek out and work with various accomplished teachers and mentors.
In high school, she worked in the office of Federal District Court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, where she catalogued many of the books in his chambers. In undergrad, she worked closely with the literary scholar Wernor Sollors and the historian Nathan Huggins. In graduate school, she studied with the philosopher Cornel West.
Maybe some of you have asked as I have: what led to the emergence of a brilliant African American literary and Black Studies scholar like Farah Jasmine Griffin? This book provides an answer: a loving, politically-minded and intellectually curious black father.
Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature is an important touchstone for those of us interested in the transmission of knowledge among African Americans. Similar to those stories about fathers and uncles shared by my students, Griffin's book is, among other things, a tribute to and elaboration on a well-read black man.Related