A PBS NewsHour Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year in Nonfiction
A brilliant scholar imparts the lessons bequeathed by the Black community and its remarkable artists and thinkers.
Farah Jasmine Griffin has taken to her heart the phrase "read until you understand," a line her father, who died when she was nine, wrote in a note to her. She has made it central to this book about love of the majestic power of words and love of the magnificence of Black life.
Griffin has spent years rooted in the culture of Black genius and the legacy of books that her father left her. A beloved professor, she has devoted herself to passing these works and their wisdom on to generations of students.
Here, she shares a lifetime of discoveries: the ideas that inspired the stunning oratory of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, the soulful music of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the daring literature of Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison, the inventive artistry of Romare Bearden, and many more. Exploring these works through such themes as justice, rage, self-determination, beauty, joy, and mercy allows her to move from her aunt’s love of yellow roses to Gil Scott-Heron’s "Winter in America."
Griffin entwines memoir, history, and art while she keeps her finger on the pulse of the present, asking us to grapple with the continuing struggle for Black freedom and the ongoing project that is American democracy. She challenges us to reckon with our commitment to all the nation’s inhabitants and our responsibilities to all humanity.
"What might an engagement with literature written by Black Americans teach us about the United States and its quest for democracy," asks Griffin (Uptown Conversations), a comparative literature and African American studies professor at Columbia University, in this remarkable triptych. Blending memoir, political musings, and literary criticism, Griffin considers novelists, essayists, poets, and musicians as she recounts growing up Black and embracing her community. In "The Question of Mercy," poet Phillis Wheatley's concept of mercy (which "brings her Christianity") meets Toni Morrison's (as it relates to freedom). "Rage and Resistance" recounts how Griffin discovered the poet Frances E.W. Harper, who set her "on the path to becoming a scholar," "The Quest for Justice" explores representations of justice in Black literature recalls the killing of Philando Castile, and "Black Freedom and the Idea(l) of America" studies the writings of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X and pinpoints their influence on Barack Obama. Throughout, Griffin writes with learned poignance: "Our writers and our organizers make poetry of the rage. They have been working, building, creating, envisioning, showing us how to live like the future we are hoping to build is already here." Perfect for literature lovers, this survey and its moving insights will stick with readers well after the last page is turned.