Thursday, September 2, 2021

When Farah Jasmine Griffin Discovered Toni Morrison

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. 


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