Though Farah Jasmine Griffin did not grow up a churchgoer, she gracefully weaves the sacred with the profane in her academic memoir, Read Until You Understand, which explores her connection to the sweeping themes found within the African American literature she reveres. In doing so, Griffin makes literary analysis both accessible and relevant ... Griffin’s tour through the works of heavyweights gives rare—and well-deserved—attention to some of the women who have shaped the Black canon ... Her expertise is evident — sometimes too much so—as she transitions from straightforward memoir to scholarship, presenting a litany of reading that feels drawn directly from her syllabuses. Occasionally, passages read as if they are transcribed from a lecture. And, while Griffin’s quick detour into music stirs up nostalgia for those of us familiar with 1970s R & B, one has the sense that it was perhaps more rewarding for her to write than it is to read. Shortcomings aside, a book like Read Until You Understand takes courage to produce ... The book does include flashes of brilliance ... Nowhere is this brilliance more apparent than in the chapter on death ... Her writing about love is equally evocative ... Griffin’s evangelizing of Black literature does what the best sermons do: It sends you back to Scripture—Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker and others—to discover or rediscover them, to ponder and treasure them anew.
... feels like multiple books captured in a single volume, yet none could quite survive without the others ... slim and quietly captivating ... 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.
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 ... 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 ... With both grace and mercy, Griffin’s Read Until You Understand is a thorough exercise in Black thought, Black anger, and Black joy.