Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Farah Jasmine Griffin

Clive Nwonka: Hi, I’m Dr Clive Nwonka, Lecturer in Film, Culture and Society and Associate of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. Today, it’s a pleasure to be joined by Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. Farah is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University, and was the inaugural Chair of its African-American and African Diaspora Studies Department. Farah received her BA from Harvard, where she majored in American History and Literature, and her PhD in American Studies from Yale. Her major fields of interest are American and African-American literature, music and history, and has published widely on issues of race and gender, feminism, and cultural politics.
Farah is the author of Who Set You Flowin'? the African-American migration narrative, If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and co-author, with Salim Washington, of Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever. Her most recent book, Read Until You Understand: the Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature was published by W.W. Norton in autumn 2021, and in January of this year it won the 2022 Prose Award for Literature from the Association of American Publishers.
Read Until You Understand is a deeply personal and wide-ranging mediation on Black culture, political freedom, and humanity. Throughout the podcast, we’ll be discussing Farah’s latest book, its themes and some of the ideas that have informed Farah’s writing and scholarship. Farah, welcome to the podcast.
Farah Jasmine Griffin: Thank you for having me.
Clive: I want to begin by the actual first line in your book in the introduction, where you say, ‘this book begins with a girl and ends with grace’. It’s always an impossible question to answer, within the confines of a podcast discussion, but what is the essence of Read Until You Understand?
Farah: At its core is a sort of an appreciation for writing, but not only writing, various forms of cultural production, primarily writing, creative writing, by African-American writers; but also an appreciation for the culture that produced me and that gave me a context for reading and understanding those authors, when I encountered them. And, ultimately, both my book and the figures about whom I write, I believe, have something to say about certain fundamental questions that concern all of us, whether they be questions of justice, or mercy, community, love, and in the context of the United States, of course race and racism, but more importantly, the ways that Black people have countered the impact of white supremacy on their daily lives.
Clive: It’s interesting you mention that about the ways in which we think around the question of race and racism and how one pushes back against these forces. I was fortunate enough to be in the congregation, as I call it, at the very intimate gathering at Harvard in February 2020 where you gave such a powerful keynote address at the Department of African-American and African Studies’ anniversary, with, of course, a very heartfelt and verbally pyrotechnic introduction from Cornel West. You talked quite poignantly about what you saw as the three sites of engagement for African-American, African diasporic studies in the current conjuncture: in the classroom, in the world, and in the planet. I’d love you to expand on this.
Farah: In the classroom, because we often think of Black studies as an academic enterprise, an intellectual enterprise, and much of the work that we do together happens in the classroom, both understanding those ideas that have given birth and shape and form to Black studies, and also trying to further the intellectual nature of that project. So, it’s the work we do in the classroom and how we engage with other discourses and other kinds of ideas.
But Black studies has also always existed in the world beyond the academy. In fact – you know this better than anyone – our earliest formation doesn’t even necessarily happen in the academy, and many of our intellectuals were not formally a part of the academy, and the ideas were borne in conversation with academic discourses but not to the exclusion of them. They come out of the experience of people in the diaspora trying to make sense of the world and the absurdities that they found themselves confronted with.
And then I thought that the sort of engagement with what I call the planet, I was very much inspired by artists, and scholars, and thinkers who were engaging questions of climate and environment, and trying to help us imagine futures on the other side of the world as we know it; if not certainly trying to save the world from the destruction of human beings, but also trying to imagine what it would be like to build a different future, one that was not so embroiled in the various kinds of inequality, and damage and destruction to the environment, and certainly damage and destruction to human beings, especially those human beings who are of African descent.
Clive: I want to touch upon the classroom and the significance. One thing you did mention at the conference in your keynote that's always stuck with me is the ways in which you place such an importance on Black studies that goes beyond the academy. One thing you did say was the scholarship produced by Black studies has enhanced and expanded the traditional academic disciplines, especially literary studies, history, anthropology and sociology. I’m interested in how these formative years within that structured Black studies programme contributed to your scholarship today and beyond.
Farah: I think in a number of ways. One, before I even knew about something called Black studies, I realised that intellectually I was formed in that context. I became aware of Black writers and Black thinkers and that they had something important to say to all of us who engaged their ideas. I learned that before ever entering the academy and before ever knowing what a formal thing called Black studies was, and it was because I grew up in a city with a large Black population, a very politically engaged city, a city with a long tradition of political engagement on the part of Black activists and thinkers.
Clive: Is that Philadelphia?
Farah: That’s Philadelphia. And I heard of Fanon as a girl because the independent bookstores that my father and I would go to had Black Skin, White Mask and The Wretched of the Earth on the table to sell, right next to something about Huey Newton, or right next to something by Du Bois. So, there was this sort of excitement about this body of literature that didn’t seem to exist in a vacuum, but it existed in the context of political movement in a very vibrant political culture. So, that was my first understanding of study - the importance of 'study’ more so than studies.
And then by the time I got to college, Harvard had an African-American Studies department, it departmentalised early but it did not give very many resources to that department, so there’s was always the fight, we were always engaged in a fight to have the university support this departmentalisation that they had overseen, not to let it flounder. And there weren’t a lot of Black people doing Black studies on the faculty, but there were lots of people coming through, and you had the sense that if you pursued this line of work, you were going to be in on the building of something remarkable, and that you were simply the next iteration of something that had been long-standing, and part of that iteration was its institutionalisation in academic institutions. But unlike many academic projects, this one just felt like there was a sense of mission and a sense of purpose, and that the academy was one site of it.
And then by the time I got to graduate school, two things were happening at Yale. One, Yale actually had one of the most vibrant African-American African Diaspora studies programmes, and when I was there, I was in American studies which, at that time, was being very much informed and influenced by cultural studies, by Black British cultural studies; Hazel Carby was coming, she was on her way, and Paul Gilroy would be there. So, there was this combination of what was happening in cultural studies, kind of Stuart Hall cultural studies, and this trajectory of Black studies at the same time. So, at every step of the way, there was a feeling of profound intellectual excitement, because it really did feel like you weren’t engaging something that was stultified and written in stone, but that it was something that over which there was a contest, there were arguments, there were debates, and you were maybe getting in on, if not the ground floor, certainly one of the early floors in helping to build and erect what Black studies was becoming. And I think we’ve recently been in another iteration of that as well.
Clive: Absolutely. I’m really struck by the way that you make that quite crucial distinction between 'study' and 'studies'. That feels to be quite central to that struggle and contestation that you’re describing.
Farah: Yes, absolutely. And that sense of study, and again, of course Fred Milton and Harvey have talked about this, but I think that there really was, for me, a sense of study, when I describe that early context in Philadelphia. There were reading groups and you learned that one of the things that the Panthers were reading was Fanon. So, I remember even as a schoolgirl, trying to read Fanon, asking the librarian about it, and she said, that’s a little above your level. But it was because I knew that this was something that folk were reading, and that it was considered important to the movements that we were building. And so that study wasn’t individualistic, it was something that was communal, it was necessary for movement building, but it was also necessary for having a sense of oneself as a subject in the world.
Clive: One of the ways in which Cornel West described the distinctiveness of your work on that day at Harvard was through the term he used, 'cross-genre analysis'. There feels something that is highly multi and interdisciplinary about your writing, your research. It feels instinctively cross-genred. There’s something necessary about your work that has to be striding through these different disciplines and paradigms.
Farah: What a great question. I think so, for me; when I learned that there was something called an interdisciplinarity, I thought that makes sense, like that’s the way I’m thinking anyway. And I’ll tell you why; I think it’s because my interest, more so than a disciplinary interest, although I am partial to the literary, for various reasons that we can talk about, but my interest really was Black people. It was what Black people found themselves up against, the kind of enormity of what they found themselves up against, and then the innovative and creative and extraordinary ways with which they responded, and created, and built things.
So, given that interest, anything that could then help me understand that better, any writer, any body of work that could help me have a better sense of that, those were the tools I wanted access to. And I would find it in some things, like people with sociological training had talked about it more but people with literary training had not, so I needed to read the sociologist. Or if I found myself talking about, as I do in this book, values like mercy and grace, I’m not a particularly religious person but the people who wrote about those things were theologians, so I needed to read what theologians had to say. I think all of that needs to be brought to bear on the study of Black life.
And then I go back – it’s probably a cliché – to Du Bois who, in the Souls of Black Folk, to get to his sense of what the souls of Black folk have to tell us, like what we can learn, how do we interpret it if we listen closely on the ground, then we need to know how to listen in every way, and how to think in every way. And so there you meet Du Bois the historian, Du Bois the sociologist, Du Bois the short-story writer, Du Bois the music scholar, Du Bois the scholar of Black religion, you meet all those Du Boises. He brings all of that to bear, to give us some insight, and I think that kind of thinking, that way of thinking has always been exciting to me, but also a kind of model as well.
Clive: Reading the inner notes of your book, we learn that the book’s title, Read Until You Understand, was inspired by a note written to you by your late father when you were aged nine. How has that note, as words of encouragement, as a challenge, or as an inheritance, inspired and informed your exploration of Black life, Black cultural forms and, subsequently, the book?
Farah: In every one of those ways that you talked about. My father wrote me that note, and so it was something he wanted me to do, here’s a book, read it until you understand. And at the time, I just thought he wants me to understand it, like he wants me to know what they’re talking about in this book. So, that’s what I did. I read it so that I could understand it. And if you don’t understand it, he said, ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions.
But my father died shortly after writing me that note and so then it became like a lifelong mission, it was like something he left me with, so there’s the inheritance. And that more than the destination of reading this particular book until you know what it’s about, it became a process, a process of reading to understand, which means that it’s a lifelong process, that you will always be engaged in the process of trying to understand things.
And what will happen is that there will be more things for you to read and more things for you to understand. And that has been true both as a kind of life lesson but also as a direction for my work. In Who Set You Flowin'? realising that the story- personally my own family had migrated, they were part of the Great Migration, and then realising that they weren’t the only ones, that there was this whole mass movement of peoples. Well, why? The answer to why is the sociologists say this, and the historians say that, the migrants themselves said this thing, and this is what they said in music but this is what they said in their letters, and then this is what the artists had to say about it. Trying to understand the impact of migration, the whys of migration, in Harlem Nocturne trying to understand what I think of as a most remarkable generation of Black people, those who come of age in the 1940s, and who are kind of militant in their refusals and wanting to understand them, wanting to know more about them. This is the generation that gave us Malcolm X, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. I need to understand that generation, and so read until you understand has become for me a way of life.
Clive: And that understanding becomes so prevalent in the book in terms of how you draw on these questions of politics in history and literary theory, these interrogations of democracy and humanity, Black art forms and cultural practices. Am I correct in suggesting that you’re searching for the lived reality of literature in the book?
Farah: I think so. I think there’s the lived reality of it, there’s the way that being a reader of literature can inform our living, can inform and inspire and nurture our imaginations. I provide a set of interpretations but those aren’t definitive interpretations. I see literature - and I hope that I share this - as an invitation, an invitation to read and to think, and to agree or disagree, or to build your own in the process. And also that old-fashioned thing of literature as equipment for living, it’s part of our toolkit. It’s not the only part but it’s an important tool for us to have.
Clive: The late and great Toni Morrison is a constant intellectual and spiritual resource throughout the book. Sadly, the opening moments of what became Covid-19 in 2020 and became the pandemic denied me the chance of actually attending the Five Volumes for Toni Morrison retrospective, which you were heavily involved in, in London at the ICA in March 2020. I’m referring to your opening lecture titled, Ethics of Care, Restorative Justice and Healing in Toni Morrison’s Late Fiction. Is it possible to even sum up how important Toni Morrison’s work has been to your own trajectory?
Farah: Oh my goodness, as we’re talking today it's her birthday actually. I can’t think of any figure, outside of my father, who has been more important to me intellectually, and I have lots of intellectual figures who are important to me but she is among the earliest, having encountered her as a girl, and consistently in every stage of my development. And it’s not so much Toni in her person, although I knew her personally and loved her dearly, but it’s Toni on the page who taught me how to think about things, she gave me the freedom to challenge certain things, like linear narratives about history, a way of looking at history, a way of looking at Black life and mining it for its ethical dimensions, without romanticising it, I think that there are just numerous ways. And at each stage also in my development, my thinking, reading Morrison, she’s been on this lifelong journey with me. And there’re insights that I encounter at different stages that I didn’t see early on. It doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with her, but oh how rich and delicious even the disagreements are, because I’m smarter on the other side of them.
Clive: I’ve read, Read Until You Understand twice now and I’m fascinated still by the idea that you foreground in your writing, that of care and how it speaks to a kind of very rhizomatic approach to so many different questions, one of which is the aesthetic. Can you talk a bit more about your interest in the aesthetics of care through literature?
Farah: I think that the aesthetics of care and the way I understand them are two-fold. One, it’s the way that authors, like Morrison and Baldwin and others, will represent / portray / talk about moments of care, how they will foreground them, what happens aesthetically in the text when they are in those moments. The ways that they highlight how human beings take care of each other and the necessity of that care for recognising our own humanity and the humanity of others. The heightened language, the ways that they might set it off in a text. There’s even some ways of calling attention to things by making it a very quiet moment in the text, by quietening things down.
Then there is the care with which they portray people who might otherwise be dismissed, the person who’s an alcoholic, or someone struggling with a drug addiction, or the person who’s not necessarily been good, who, in other instances, might be a villain, who might even be doing something destructive and villainous in the text, but the care that’s given to show us that they’re not devils, they’re humans and how they came to be that way.
So, those are all dimensions of an aesthetic of care that I see at work in this fiction. But there’s also the way that they highlight what I call - borrowing from many early feminist thinkers - an ethic of care, particularly an ethic of care amongst marginalised communities. The care with which we treat each other and how the figure who is cared for receives some sort of healing, not a return to wholeness, but a capacity to be able to continue to function and do good in the world, as Morrison says. But also the people who offer the care, they rise as human beings by caring, they become better people. And so I’m fascinated by both what I understand to be an ethic of care but also the aesthetics of care, the care with which they do this work.
And I see it even in some visual arts as well, or in film. I often think of Barry Jenkins as a filmmaker whose aesthetic includes many things but, to me, it also includes an aesthetic of care. There are moments in his film where he just seems to be taking such care with the way that he’s presenting Black people, lingering on the tones of their skin and the light, there’s just an exquisiteness about it that I find very inspiring. 
Clive: One of the ways I think, for me, that you display a similar ethic of care in your writing, and in many ways I’m thinking about Raymond Williams’ work, and his own cultural archaeology of words and terms, is the way in which your book is populated with some key words: grace, mercy, beauty. It seems there’s a particular careful attention to what these words mean, how they can be kind of generative in particular political, cultural, and racial conjunctions.
Farah: I think so, and those are words and concepts that have long histories. They have histories through time and across nation, which is also why I wanted to spend time with them when talking about Black life. And then I wanted to talk about the very specific, not a kind of monolithic Black culture, but the very specific Black community that I know most well, that I came up through.
Also I had something to say about those kinds of concepts. Beauty, and beauty in terms of the quotidian, beauty not in terms of a kind of hierarchy of racial traits, or anything like that, but the cultivation of beauty which is a form of care in our everyday lives, whether it be a houseplant, or something over which they have control, a perfectly grown tomato, it doesn’t have to be a flower. The way one makes a garment, the way one wears a garment, the way one styles a garment. Or grace, it’s a religious concept on the one hand, but on the other hand, what does it mean for people to be conduits of grace to each other for no apparent reason, just because you are, that you are worthy of something good, something beautiful, a chance to breathe, a moment of rest. Those are the kinds of things that I wanted to linger on in this book.
And then mercy - mercy appears early in the book and grace closes it. Grace is the greater value to me but mercy, because it appears so often in both literature by African-Americans but also in the Black vernacular, and can have such a multitude of meanings, again it was a chance to linger and even see what are the philosophical meanings – and this is something I learned from Toni – what are the deeper philosophical and ethical meanings embedded in the ways that we use language, in the ways we use what we call the vernacular, when somebody says, 'Lord, have mercy, what meanings might we find in that and how might we mine that for some meaning that is significant.
Clive: The book feels to me - and you actually mention this in your introduction - like an accumulation of a lifetime of thinking, but also of education and pedagogy. I say this is in a more bio-directional way, in that your book, for me, seems to bridge your own intellectual inspirations, many of whom, as you already said, existed outside the academe. And you marry this with the horizontal relationships you actually have established with your teaching with students. That, for me, seems to be very unique, to bring in that generative space of the classroom into something so definite and so intellectually ridden.
Farah: The classroom is of central importance to me and this book could not have been written without it in many ways because with my students it’s such a reciprocal relationship. I come up with a syllabus and a set of text and I say, we’re going to read these and this is what I think we’ll find there. And then they find things that I never even thought about looking for; or they tell me what’s missing, or what they want to know more about. I give a course on Black girls and I say that the syllabus is a work-in-progress, that we can change it, what’s missing? And they said to me, and this was maybe five / seven years ago, 'there’s nothing on trans girls here. How can you have a syllabus about girls and you don’t have anything about trans girls?' I said, you’re absolutely right, let’s go back to the drawing board.
And for this book, it was this chapter on justice in particular. I had all this stuff on justice and what I thought Black writers had to say about it, and think about it, and finally they were like, 'Professor Griffin, isn’t there something on Black vigilantes? What’s the vigilantes take on this?' I thought, oh, you’re right, let’s go look for that. Then I talked to my colleagues, what do you recommend? What should we be reading? So, I’m forced out of the box and the comfort of my own thinking. Even when I think I’m being adventurous, I’m not being adventurous enough.
As I was finishing the book, one of the reasons why I was able to finish it – you mentioned that wonderful Toni Morrison festival in London – I was on my way there and then Covid shut us down. We thought it would be a week, two weeks but it wasn’t and my classes went online and out of the care for my students – I was so concerned about them - I went back into the syllabus, I changed it. Instead of rushing through a bunch of readings I said, we’re going to read fewer books and we’re going to read them more deeply. And I decided that the most important thing was to create a space of community, that the books would be a reason for our coming together in that space, and that really shaped the way I thought about what I was writing. And also wanting to give them something, like I remember for one of the assignments I said it feels like the end of the world and in some ways it is, because worlds do end and we build new ones, so what kind of new world are you going to be committed to building?
And all of a sudden it became not about answers, it became something more about imagining, imagining new possibilities, imagining different kinds of futures; here’s a chance for us to do that. That’s what the classroom provides and then it seeps into the work. It’s not that the scholarship is only informing the classroom, the classroom is seeping into the scholarship too.
Clive: What strikes me as so distinctive about the book is how you use the African-American literary tradition in terms of prose, in terms of language, in terms of vernacular, to critique something as ossified as the US experiment with democracy.
Farah: Yes, absolutely. Initially when I first started thinking of the book, I’d been thinking about it for years and I knew there were some things I wanted to write, and I thought I was going to write a book on Toni, and just a bunch of other different kinds of things I thought, and then the 2016 US Presidential Election came, and it was clear to some of us that the man who won had a real strong chance of winning. Many people thought that wasn’t possible but many of us knew, this is America and he’s tapping into something very American, and there’s anger and viciousness, there’s race hatred still there and he’s saying things that people believe. And it’s also not just America, but there’s a kind of rising tide of this lean into fascism.
And so, one of the things I thought was, what have these thinkers had to say about this so-called democracy? They’ve been here since the beginning, and they’ve been contributing their thoughts about it since the beginning, and have tried to hold it up to its ideals, and have been faced with all kinds of resistance. So, initially I thought, maybe this is a book about what that tradition of Black writing has had to say about democracy and has to teach us about it. But then, as I went back and re-read, I was reminded of what I knew all along, that it was never just about the United States, it was never just about democracy. Yes, there are questions about democracy there, but that they’ve been concerned about things that are much bigger, broader, longer lasting than that. So, the purview of the book broadened.
But having said that, I was writing it during the four years of that presidency and how it came to an end and at every step of the way, I thought Black thinkers have pointed this out, they’ve been the prophets. And not the prophets in terms of knowing the future, although they do know the future, because they know the past and they know the present, but because they’ve spoken the truth about what this place really is and they’ve often been ignored. They’ve often been ignored, if not censored in some ways.
Clive: You’ve said in other forums that there were certain chapters that you found difficult to write, notably Rage & Resistance. I’m interested in why you found this chapter particularly challenging, but also the importance of the 19th century abolitionist poet, Frances Harper, to that writing. Not so much the intellectual framework per se, but more as an emotional resource in that endeavour.
Farah: The two chapters that I found most difficult to write were the Rage & Resistance chapter and the Death chapter, for different reasons. The Rage & Resistance chapter wasn’t initially there early, early on when I was crafting chapters, playing around with what would be there. I shared what would become an introduction and preliminary table of contents with my colleague, the late Steven Gregory, who we just lost in September. We always shared work and he was very encouraging, as he always is, and he said, the only thing that’s missing is a chapter on rage. And he was right and so I thought, yes, I’ve got to put it in there.
Then I procrastinated writing it and then we found ourselves in the moment of George Floyd, so many things had been leading up to it - I kind of start with Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, all of those moments leading up to it. And then we get George Floyd and I’m so enraged at yet again –and I realised that I’d spent the last four to eight years enraged – and that what I saw happening, time and again, was the relationship between rage and resistance. For me, the writers, the artists and the organisers were the ones showing us how to first legitimate that rage, because Black rage is so frightening to white people, so we’re often taught not to show it, but that the artists and the organisers have every right to be enraged, it’s legitimate; and then turning that legitimate rage into resistance. And one of the reasons why it was hard to write was because it was happening at the very moment that I was trying to write it, right at the very moment we’re in the thick of it.
So, I started it several times and then I went back, because Philadelphia, my hometown, even though I live in New York, was a major site of many of the sort of confrontations between police and protesters. I decided to literally step back and step back in history to say, oh there were other people who were enraged and turned that rage into resistance, and what would it mean if I looked at Philadelphia? And there was Frances Harper, who I’d always been fascinated with and written about in my career, and she literally says it’s her rage, it’s her rage over the death of someone who has been kidnapped and sold into slavery and worked to death. She says, on his grave is where I stake what I’m going to do the rest of my life doing. So, she’s enraged, you read her letters, and she’s about to become despondent and depressed. She’s already depressed, she’s about to become despondent and then she takes that and she commits her life to radical abolitionism. And so that became the entry point for me, for talking about it. The chapter kind of starts with Philadelphia and protests in the seventies and then goes back to that group of white abolitionists and Black abolitionists who make Philadelphia this amazing site of resistance, and it ends in the contemporary moment. So, that’s what allowed me through it.
Death was hard to write because- the book is haunted by death, by the death of my father, but I was finishing it during a pandemic, where Black people, brown people, poor people were dying in disproportionate numbers. We were in the middle of mass death and I had to write about that too. So, I’m finishing this book in the midst of the plague of a pandemic, which is affecting us more than any other people and the slaughter, because they’re still killing us in the street, even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, like there’s no let up to this. And so that’s why those were hard chapters to write, but that’s also why they had to be written.
Clive: Absolutely. I’m interested in your methodology as well and in reading the book and thinking about the way that you marry the deeply autobiographical with this generative theoretical engagement, it’s a method I see for myself in the work of Stuart Hall in a UK context, I guess more recently, in Ann duCille’s Technicolored Reflections on Race In The Time Of TV, and what an amazing book that was. How does one keep those two schisms of thought in place when writing a book like this?
Farah: I think there’s a line that Christina Sharpe has in In The Wake where she talks about the autobiographical too. I think that you walk a very fine line. So, the autobiographical comes right out of a kind of tradition of the slave narrative and all of that, that the autobiographical is about an individual life, but only to the extent that that individual life is bearing witness to something beyond it. So, it’s not a navel gazing gesture but it’s the ways that I can draw you into this story and I become someone about whom you care, and you’re interested - here’s the story and here's how it relates to a broader set of concerns and issues and stories.
So, the premature death of my father, the context that might lead to his death, the context that make it so that there is a carelessness with which he is treated when he’s not well is very personal and destructive. And yet it’s not just me, it’s indicative. The fact that we die earlier than we should and that our lives are harsher, and that we’ve come up with this rituals around death, that have become part of the culture, or the way that the police, or the medical establishment, deal with Black suffering and Black pain. It’s true in my individual case but it’s also true in kind of larger, systemic ways.
I think that’s the fine line that one walks between using the autobiographical as a way to broach the broader, more theoretical, or sociological, or historical, in my case, issues and concerns. For me, in writing those parts of the memoir, if they didn’t serve that larger purpose, then they didn’t belong in the book. They might be interesting stories about me, but if they didn’t serve the larger purpose, then they weren’t going to be there.
Clive: I was privileged enough to have been hosted by you as a visiting researcher at the African-American African Diaspora Studies department during the Fall of 2019, and I found it to be a hugely generative space for me. We’re seeing the openings of a similar Black studies tradition in the academy in the UK, but that’s been a long and protracted struggle. And being around yourself, your colleagues like David Scott, for instance, and I remember going to the Joyce Ladner talk and buying Tomorrow’s Tomorrow for the first time and reading it the next day.
Those kinds of experiences were something that wasn’t automatically given to you, certainly in my trajectory, and again you mentioned the idea of Black studies, and things that you study and are studied, are very much my experience up until that moment. Thinking about Columbia and what you developed there, and again that long, protracted, glacial struggle to get it made- because in many ways, Read Until You Understand is the index of this creation of an intellectual community at Columbia. Looking back now, what was that process like, developing Black studies at Columbia as a discipline?
Farah: I’m just so glad that you were there and your presence was such a gift, and also you were there during that period when it was happening, finally it was happening. Steven Gregory and I came together, we were recruited by Manning Marable, and then, later on, Robin Kelley came. So, Manning had his own history of developing Black studies, both in terms of the books that he wrote and the institutions that he built, and the publications, the journals that he founded. All the kinds of things that help to make a field he’d been involved in, and he had the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, which was an incarnation of Black studies at Columbia; there had been several different kinds of incarnations.
So, he sort of laid that groundwork, as someone who had understood, had been part of building Black studies, just nationally / internationally, and then we took up the next phase of it, which was departmentalising it; Columbia was way behind in actually formally creating a department. And in some ways the institute structure worked for us. We could host visiting scholars, like yourself, we were able to train students, but what we couldn’t do is we didn’t have the capacity to hire and tenure our own people, which is really where the power is in the academy. But we certainly saw ourselves as standing upon a foundation that Manning, and others before him, put down for us, that it was the next logical step.
And there’s often a way of trying to make things be about a particular individual, and that was something that we tried to resist, as we were coming together as a department. I remember the school newspaper said, the five faculty who made African-American Studies, and we wrote letters to the paper like, no, it wasn’t five faculty, it was all of us. It was a communal effort. We had the support of the literal community that we live in, Harlem, and other Harlem institutions that supported us and are part of advisory boards, because that’s what you have to do. And we had the community of our students and our affiliates, all who helped develop the vision. And much of that happened in the classroom. It’s interesting, much of the intellectual vision happened in the classroom, but most of the community building happened outside of the classroom. Everything counts. So, the community building and the programming that we did, the community building and the parties that we had, there's nothing like bonding- no better way to bond than over a party with some good music and some good food.
So, all of that went into creating this department and also having the support of colleagues from around the country who supported us as we did it. It was a long time communal effort and I really have to applaud the vision of my colleagues at Columbia, who worked for years to help create what would become the department, and the enormous generosity of my colleagues around the country who, whenever I needed them, came to our aid. Either a question about this is what you ask for, or this is how we do it there, or will you be part of an advisory committee so that they can see we have people looking out for us? It was quite an extraordinary endeavour. And I wrote this book and my other colleagues were writing books at the time that we were also building the institution.
Clive: I can’t help but think about the words that you spoke at the Harvard gathering in February 2020, when you spoke about the potential for Black studies, or the Black studies tradition, to venture beyond the academy and inform and give shape, to social movements for racial justice. Of course, this was just four months before the events of May/June 2020 in Minneapolis that took us into a brand new conjuncture of race globally. What’s your assessment of the post-George Floyd politics of race in America and also the role of Black studies to that struggle at present?
Farah: I think that those young people who took to the streets – and there were old people too but really it was young people at the forefront of these movements – all over the world, many of them, especially the organisers, are deep readers and deep thinkers. They were reading, whether they were reading James Baldwin, Saidiya Hartman, or Moten, again we go back to the idea of study, or those who were reading Octavia Butler, those who’d been formally educated or students of Black studies. They had a vocabulary and a language that came from that context, and that language itself was informed by social movements, and so I do think that was the case.
Those of us who are older, there were all these things like, we’re going to celebrate Juneteenth or we’re going to put up our solidarity against systemic racism. There was all that energy, or we’re going to hire two Black people. But those of us that have been around know that we’ve seen those moments before. They don’t last and that they are interpreted as ways to kind of strengthen or diversify capitalism, when that’s never what the goal of them is. And even that’s a weak promise, a cheque that bounces, eventually. I think that what we’re starting to see now is that we’re starting to see the pushback already.
Now, there are some pluses, like the man who murdered George Floyd is tried and convicted, and if you’re an abolitionist you don’t necessarily see that as justice but that’s a first, that doesn’t happen. Or the people who killed Ahmaud Arbery are found guilty when all of us were holding our breath expecting them not to be. So, I can’t say that that isn’t a movement forward. But the backlash is tremendous, the fact that when it becomes inconvenient to support the kind of change that was demanded, if it’s even slightly inconvenient, it becomes very easy to shut down the avenues of change, or to ask people to be satisfied with some sort of symbolic gestures, or gestures that might benefit a very small few, but don’t really address the real issues that put us in the street in the first place.

Read Until You Understand
Clive: I want to conclude by just coming back to the book and the front cover. It’s a very, very striking image there. For me, there’s something very haptic about that image. When I first saw it, I thought about growing up in the Nigerian Pentecostal Church, which was massive to me and my family, and my cousins and my sisters and how they plaited their hair. I just thought of that image, and that I encountered someone like that in my formative years in my family, in my immediate environment in North West London. Can you give me some background to that image?
Farah: I had several images that I thought I might want to use for the cover and that artist was someone I’d been following. He’s actually a Dutch artist and he has several series, but one of his series is a series of, it’s kind of photograph paintings that he’d done of Black children. I’ve been following them online and collecting postcards of them and everything, and I fell in love with that little girl because like you, I knew her, she was familiar.
But I also fell in love with her for other reasons. I love that she’s black, black, black, like Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, her skin is black, black, black, and I love her hair, I love that style, which is aesthetically Black, and I love the fact that one of her twists, perfectly parted and twisted in a kind of disciplinary way that we do our little girls’ hair, but one of them has escaped the discipline and come undone, and it’s just there living like a little piece of sculpture.
But also the image spoke to me because there’s a sense of interiority that we often deny Black people, particularly little Black girls who look like her. There’s a sense of thoughtfulness and pensiveness and quietude in her image, a kind of reflecting self. I think it was both the quiet and the interiority that I wanted captured. And I loved her being surrounded by a field of flowers, it really spoke to me, and to give visual speaking to so many of the words contained within the book.
Clive: Farah, this has been an amazing conversation, thank you so much for this very rich and generative conversation. I’m really grateful to you for being so generous with your time and your thoughts as well, and I look forward to continuing our conversation in the future.
Farah: Thank you and thank you for taking such care and time with reading it and the questions that you shared with me.