Sunday, August 29, 2021

Farah Jasmine Griffin, African American literary scholars, and Autobiographical writing

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:
1994: Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  
1996: Leaving Pipe Shopw: Memories of Kin by Deobroah McDowell
1996: Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks
2003: Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South by Trudier Harris
2007: I Don't Hate the South: Reflections on Faulkner, Family, and the South by Houston A. Baker, Jr.
2012: My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War by Lawrence P. Jackson
2012: Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City by Carla L. Peterson 
2019: Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry 
2021: Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature by Farah Jasmine Griffin

I'm sure there are even more works that I'm overlooking at the moment. So think of the above as a work-in-progress. 

Poets, journalists, entertainers, and politicians have collectively produced a large body of memoirs and autobiographies. Reading Griffin's book had me thankful, though, for the memoirs and autobiographical works produced by literary scholars. 

Griffin spends considerable time discussing the works of a wide range of black writers, along with the aspects of her upbringing. I appreciated her mixing genres -- literary criticism and memoir -- as she presented so many ideas about black people and culture. 
I wish we had multiple narratives from scholars of African American literature about their experiences in the classroom and producing scholarship. Folks like Griffin, McDowell, Gates, Harris, and others have been teaching and writing about black literary art and history for decades, and I imagine they've seen and learned so much that would be useful for us to consider.  And what about those literature professors who've spent their careers teaching at HBCUs? 

There's a certain self-consciousness about black artistic and cultural traditions in Griffin's writing that  will lead me to recommend her book to students interested in memoir, autobiography, and black culture in general. Read Until You Understand is an individual and collective story. It's about this one person, and it's also about her family, her Philadelphia environment, and all these marvelous productions by black people across time and space. In short, Griffin stretches our sense of what's possibile with autobiographical writing.     


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