Author and professor Farah Jasmine Griffin sparks campus-wide conversations and examination

The Regis University community is immersing itself in the words of Farah Jasmine Griffin, the author of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature this semester, exploring her themes of beauty, justice, joy, rage, self-determination, and mercy.

A professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, Griffin began writing Read Until You Understand during the 2016 election season, because she was deeply troubled by political turmoil across the country. As she continued writing over the next five years, history kept unfolding, culminating in the pandemic. Within the context of present events, her book, published in 2021, is a literary memoir that explores her lifetime of reading authors from Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison, and what democracy means for the lives of Black authors and activists.

“You write a book, and you send it out into the world, and you don't know how it's going to be received at all. You have hopes for how it will be received. And for the most part, the reception of this book has been what I had hoped for it,” Griffin said. “Readers have been very enthusiastic and interested.”

The Regis Office of First Year Experience assigned the book to all first-year students as required reading. Additionally, this semester, the book also is the selection for One Book, One Regis, the University-wide common read intended to serve as a unifying effort that pursues Jesuit values and inclusive excellence. Griffin visited campus in early September, helping to kick off weekly conversations that will take readers through each of the book’s themes. First Year Experience and the Office of the Provost welcomed Griffin to campus for two days of discussion.

Griffin said she hopes her words engage readers of all walks of life.

"I wanted them to feel welcome in the pages," she said. “I wanted them to argue with me. But to have the opportunity to have students focus their attention at such a precious time in their lives — it’s just extraordinary for me.”

Throughout Read Until You Understand, Griffin shares personal stories, including the death of her beloved father when she was 9 and the closets of books he left her, containing the works of authors who went on to influence her life and career. Griffin said she asked for her mother’s permission to share the family stories. 

Two of Griffin’s worlds — the personal and academic — play prominent roles. Griffin, who served as the inaugural chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia, said this meant sharing personal inspirations in her scholarly work. Her interest in literature started with her father, whose encouragement sparked a lifelong interest in engaging deeply with authors. Later, it became her life’s work. 

“(Scholars) strive toward a certain kind of objectivity, but we're drawn to certain kinds of questions, I think, for often for very personal reasons,” Griffin said. “There's some reason why they are attractive to us, or we want to find answers. And so, I think that my personal story had been informing my choice of subject matter — the questions that I was trying to answer in my research — it informed it in ways that I did not make explicit and sometimes didn't even really know. So, this time, it was a conscious choice to just come out.”

As students engage with the book this semester, Griffin said she hopes they think about their own lives and family stories. 

“What I hope is that they experience it in the way that I experienced so many of the books that I read over my life,” she said. “I would hope that even if they are encountering something that is completely foreign to them, they will see something in there with which they resonate, and I also hope they will see the value of their own experience their own stories, their own lives, their family's lives.”

Learn more about Farah Jasmine Griffin.


Photos by Skip Stewart