A love of Black literature animates every page

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s "Read Until You Understand" is an exercise of mercy in a fragmented world.

W. W. Norton & Company

Black literature is a truly vast landscape. Farah Jasmine Griffin, one of the leading voices on African American literature, is the perfect guide with her book “Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature.” She takes readers into the past to evaluate where America has been, and looks into the future to theorize about where the country could go.   

Griffin’s love for Black literature was stoked from childhood by her father, who died when she was young. His death affected her greatly, but the memory of him provides a golden thread that ties the book together. He often gave her books and publications that “articulated a sense of Black history and culture that stretched beyond the borders of the United States.” 

Her father’s insistence that she read until she understands – an admonition that provides the book’s title – drives Griffin to explore the many branches of Black life and thought. Each chapter untangles complex topics such as the definitions of mercy, forgiveness, and freedom. She explores questions such as: What does it mean to have mercy? How does this relate to how we dismantle white supremacy? From Toni Morrison to James Baldwin to Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, Griffin uses Black culture to connect present-day conflicts with those of our not-so-distant past. 

With so many references to various source material, “Read Until You Understand” may be unwieldy for those looking for a quick read. This book encourages readers to stop and research the references Griffin highlights.

Last year, protests erupted across the country, triggered by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. This year, outrage poured in from across America when Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, and four other Asian women were murdered in Atlanta. In the wake of these deaths, individuals, organizations, and companies vowed to be more aware of racism and how it impacts marginalized people in America. But there is much more to do than making anti-racist statements on social media, Griffin points out. There are deep wounds in this country that electing the first Black president or vice president won’t fix. 

Understanding is key. And “Read Until You Understand” certainly encourages that process. A casual perusal of the book may yield a few nuggets, but the real rewards come from taking time to investigate and expand your personal knowledge of Blackness and the history of ideals such as liberation and freedom. 

Griffin’s effortlessly warm and engaging writing merges personal memoir with history in a way that emphasizes the oneness of the fabric of humanity. With deft fluidity, she combines archival material and memory to form a cohesive exploration into Black life. The best part is that Griffin accomplishes this task without the reader really noticing. 

One of the biggest questions Griffin poses is whether America is a nation worth saving. She doesn’t answer this concretely, but offers a salient statement near the end of the book that provides a more generative way to approach how Americans can build the future together. 

“Though the world is full of ugliness,” she writes, “there is always, also this: Grace, unmerited reward given to humans by the Divine.”

With both grace and mercy, Griffin’s “Read Until You Understand” is a thorough exercise in Black thought, Black anger, and Black joy. To decide whether or not America is a country worth saving, readers need to go deeper into an understanding of how this nation came to be. But this is a journey that no one can force on anyone else. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not to embark on it. 

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