There's much to admire about Farah Jasmine Griffin's new book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (2021). And I'll try to offer a few perspectives in the coming weeks. For now, I wanted to briefly mention genre(s), or more accurately the art of mixing genres.
A combination of literary criticism and memoir forms the basis of Griffin's book and created an enjoyable, powerful reading experience.
Griffin has been an important scholar of African American literary studies for quite some time now. She first became known to me and many others based on her book "Who Set You Flowin'?": The African-American Migration Narrative (1995). Migration is so crucial to black thought and artistic production, so Griffin's text was invaluable for my thinking just as I was entering the field of African American literary studies.
Later, she published If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001) and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013), among other works. She's published scholarship on poetry, novels, jazz, and subjects such as Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Aaron Douglas, Toni Morrison, and Black Studies. So she was producing biographical work, cultural studies, and literary analyses since the beginning of her career.
Now though, with the new book, we learn more about her personal background as a reader and letter writer--subject positions that preceded the scholar we recognize as Farah Jasmine Griffin. She reflects on early lessons from her parents and environment in Phiadelphia, and she connects those lessons to a varity of texts she's read over the decades.
Read Until You Understand is a mix of memoir and criticism, and at same time, the book documents Griffin's explorations of muliple works--poems, history books, paintings, songs, handwritten notes from family members, and clothing (her mother is a skilled seamstress).
There's this long tradition of reading and readers in black autobiography, most famously represented in the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X. I'm always mindful of their works, but in comparison to them, Griffin offers a more detailed account of what it meant to be a black reader from a young age. Through it all, she has always been mixing genres, demonstrating the value of reading (and listening and viewing) widely.Related: