These threads are bound together by the two people who loom over Griffin’s life and mind. One is Toni Morrison, whose novels Griffin first encountered as a child, propelling her to reflect on mercy, justice, rage, death and beauty. (Morrison’s novel “Sula,” she recalls, injected the written word into her consciousness “in the way that others imbibed the words of the Bible.”) The other is Griffin’s late father, Emerson, who introduced his daughter to Black literature and foundational texts of American civics, who taught her the Gettysburg Address, the preamble to the Constitution and the opening of the Declaration of Independence before she started school, while also nudging her to read “Black Struggle” by Bryan Fulks in the third grade. “Jazzie read this book. . . . Baby read it until you understand,” he wrote on the title page.
Together, Emerson and Morrison “shaped the way I saw and thought about the world,” Griffin writes. Her father laid out the tension he perceived at the heart of the Black experience in America, the struggle to love a country that does not seem to love him back. “He exposed me to our nation’s founding fathers and the ideals they espoused so I would understand the enormity of . . . the betrayal,” Griffin explains. And Morrison — along with the other exponents of American letters and Black political thought appearing throughout the book — has helped her wrestle with that tension ever since. “In the absence of my father, African American literature served as a constant spiritual and intellectual companion,” Griffin writes. That absence came too soon; Griffin’s father died of a brain hemorrhage when he was only 45 years old and she was 9.
Griffin does not resolve this tension, but that is not really the goal of this slim and quietly captivating book. True to her profession — Griffin teaches comparative literature at Columbia University and is chair of African American and African diaspora studies — she’d rather leave any resolution to her readers and students. So long, that is, as they understand that literature can bear witness “to both the hypocrisy and the promise of the nation” and that it has the power “to remind us of another’s humanity by touching our own.”
Her father’s death in 1972 recurs in “Read Until You Understand,” for the void it left but also for its circumstances. Emerson was transported from their home to the hospital in a police vehicle rather than an ambulance; his unsecured stretcher slid around with every sharp turn. Though eulogies and family lore would remember his final words as “Take me home to Muzzy” (his nickname for Mena, Griffin’s mother) Griffin knows it was a different cry, “Oh Muzzy, my head!”
A child cannot forget such a moment, but life insists on reminders. When 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a spinal injury in the back of a Baltimore police van, Griffin and her mother called each other, “both immediately snatched back to that Philadelphia night when the three of us — she, my father, and I — were in the back of the paddy wagon.”
Griffin sought to understand her father’s beliefs. He was a Black nationalist, she concludes, whose politics “started out like Douglass and ended up like Malcolm,” first seeing America as a work in progress and later lamenting it as irredeemable. But she knows that convictions are complicated, not least her father’s and her own. His bouts of bitterness about the United States — “My country, ’tis of thee, land of no liberty,” he would sing — brushed up against his admiration for the founding documents and his “disdainful awe” for U.S. military power. Above all, he taught Griffin that reading and resistance are inextricable, that “we march, we stand up (or sit down) for what we believe, and we read.”
In this book as survey course, Griffin highlights Black writers and activists simultaneously lured by America’s ideals and repelled by the hollowness of their practice. She recalls Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” in which he offers hope for the founding ideals of justice and equality, even as he wonders if the Declaration’s principles will ever be “extended to us.” Anti-slavery activist David Walker’s 1829 manifesto, “Appeal in Four Articles; Together With a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America” is modeled on the Constitution, even as it indicts the cruelties inflicted on Black Americans. And the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program is written as a “hybrid,” Griffin notes, of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. “The Panthers thus demonstrate the hypocrisy of the national creed,” Griffin writes, even while “situating the contemporary struggle for Black freedom squarely within the revolutionary origins of the United States.”
Griffin shares that ambivalence. “Black Americans’ understanding of America is too realistic, too cautious, too conscious of the lessons of history, to possess an unbridled patriotism,” she writes. “We know that at best, our country is a work in progress and that the battle to perfect it is an uphill climb.” But engaging that battle is its own patriotism, too.
Griffin lingers on Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” an 18th-century poem once reviled by Black thinkers for its expressions of gratitude for slavery, though later reinterpreted as initiating a Black prophetic tradition. (“This seems to me,” Griffin writes, “a major dilemma of the Black artist and intellectual in the West; in order to be heard by those who oppress you, you must first accept the false premise that justifies your oppression.”) She revisits her undergraduate obsession with 19th-century poet Frances E.W. Harper, particularly “Bury Me in a Free Land” (“Make it among earth’s humblest graves/ But not in a land where men are slaves”). More personally, she compares her parents’ loving relationship to those in James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” works that “bear witness to the miracle of Black love” amid so much injustice. This is a life lived among books, then reinterpreted through them.
But always, Griffin returns to Morrison. She provides brief thematic overviews of her fiction, from the contrasting depictions of death, whether haunting or transcendent, in “Beloved” and “Sula,” to the varying conceptions of justice, whether vengeful or restorative, in “Song of Solomon” and “Home.” Throughout Morrison’s work Griffin identifies what she calls an “ethic of care,” a communal love that gives and affirms life. In “The Bluest Eye,” an ill child regards her mother’s love as “thick and dark as Alaga syrup,” and Griffin revels in Morrison’s subtle depiction of darkness as loving, not frightening. In “Home,” a Black child mutilated by a White eugenicist is later cared for by tough older women in her community, recovering into something new and strong. “Two months surrounded by country women who loved mean had changed her,” Morrison writes. Griffin describes the child’s new freedom as “a mental state, one that she must claim for herself.”
Perhaps Griffin seizes on this ethic of care because she has not just read it until she understood — she has lived it as well. It appears in her visits to bookstores with her father and fabric stores with her mother; in her days listening to songs and conversation in a small family restaurant that she describes with such devotion that I wished I could have eaten there myself; in her time in the family’s urban garden, a space that, for the women around her, “mirrored their own lovely softness amid the harsh concrete world they inhabited.” These are the book’s most memorable passages, perhaps more so for their relative scarcity.
Upon her father’s death, Griffin writes, she and her mother were enveloped by support from their community, the family and neighbors who sustained and protected them. “I experienced this as a thick blanket, covering us and holding us close,” she recalls. Maybe it was thick as syrup, too.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: