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A Columbia University professor's Brief But Spectacular take on Black life and literature


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: During the 2016 presidential campaign, Columbia University Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin was deeply troubled by the political turmoil happening across the country.

She began writing a literary memoir titled "Read Until You Understand," which explores what democracy means to the lives and works of Black authors and activists and to herself.

Tonight, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, she offers her Brief But Spectacular take on Black life and literature.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University: I lost my father when I was 9 years old.

The circumstances of his death were somewhat traumatic. He came home complaining of a headache. We called the police. They debated whether or not to take him to the hospital. They said it was Friday night and that he was probably drunk. He was not.

Finally, they relented, and they took him to Philadelphia General Hospital. But he died. And I never saw him again. But I think I also that night began looking for him in all the books that he left behind. So it also gave me a gift of seeking answers in books.

My father was my first teacher, and he shared his love of learning with any young person who would sit still long enough to listen. And I think you can see a through line from my father teaching me all the way through to my experiences in the classroom.

My father loved the language of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. He felt that they contained ideals about human freedom that the United States failed to live up to, especially when it came to Black Americans.

The title of my book, "Read Until You Understand," actually comes from a note that my father left me in one of the many books that he had. There was one book called "Black Struggle." And in the front of that book, on the title page, he said: "Read this until you understand. You may not understand it at first, but read it until you understand."

I started writing "Read Until You Understand" during the 2016 presidential election. There was just so much going on that made me concerned about democracy. And I thought that Black writers, in particular, might have something to teach Americans about the values of democracy and the ways that we have often failed to live up to them.

My book is about many things. It's a love story to a community that embraced my mother and me after my father's death. It's a testament to the dynamism and power of my father's example. It's also a love letter to books and to reading and to literature.

I also hope that the book will allow people to cherish their own stories, their own quiet, ordinary, everyday experiences that, if they look deeply at them, are the source of their own profound wisdom.

My name is Farah Jasmine Griffin, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on Black life and literature.

Judy Woodruff: Very powerful. And thank you for sharing that.

And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at

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