For twenty years I taught a course on jazz and the political imagination, and I always included David Murray’s song “Flowers for Albert,” recorded live in Amsterdam in 1977. The band consisted of Murray on tenor saxophone and Lawrence “Butch” Morris on cornet, alongside pianist Don Pullen, bassist Fred Hopkins, and young poet-turned-drummer Stanley Crouch. Murray wrote it for Albert Ayler, the avant-garde saxophonist who melded the shrieks, shouts, and moans of the holiness church with elements of R&B and rock, and he titled his final LP “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.”
Initially I used “Flowers for Albert” not as an entrée in to Ayler’s work but to preface my lecture on the so-called neoconservative turn in jazz in the 1980s and ’90s , spearheaded, in part, by the critic Stanley Crouch. This was my heavy-handed, cynical way of exposing the irony of Crouch, then spokesman for Jazz at Lincoln Center, railing against the type of music he once played. A couple of years into teaching the course, I realized that how I used the song dishonored its composer and the musicians on the recording, including Crouch. A lively eight bar riff, “Flowers for Albert” is a loving memorial to Ayler, who endured the ire of some critics, financial precarity, and a devastating mental breakdown. In November 1970 Ayler’s body was found in the East River. He was thirty-four.
By the time I discovered this recording, both Don Pullen and Fred Hopkins had passed. Except for David Murray, the others are gone too: Butch Morris, who became a personal friend, split in 2013, and Stanley Crouch passed in 2020. Most admirers waited until they died to give them flowers. I know. I attended the memorials for Hopkins (1999) and Morris (2013), and both times listened to the inimitable Amiri Baraka spin words into plum blossoms and cobra lilies. He closed his eulogy to Butch with an unforgettable line: “If you don’t think your art can change the world, get another gig.” Baraka himself split a year later, and thousands turned up bearing flowers.
“Flowers for Albert,” once a source of my smug knowing, now made me tear up. It evoked the spirits of so many great creators who left us before they could be properly feted. Baraka tried, warning the world in 1965, “Albert Ayler is a master of staggering dimension, now, and it disturbs me to think that it might take a long time for a lot of people to find it out.” He wasn’t simply giving Ayler his flowers “now” in recognition of his accomplishments, but insisting we pay attention precisely because his journey was incomplete, and he had much to teach us.
My friend, literary and cultural scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, also helped change my view of Stanley Crouch. Her inveterate intellectual generosity opened her to Stanley’s unique brand of genius, although it meant enduring rambling emails and two-hour phone conversations about everything concerning race, literature, politics, sex, music, and diatribes about Michael Jackson. She listened with care and took his ideas seriously, even when she vehemently disagreed. Thanks to her, Stanley became a friend, an interlocutor, and a teacher. Even as he continuously pummeled me in public as that “unreconstructed Marxist,” in private his criticisms took the form of brotherly love, advice, and invitations to comment on his work-in-progress—usually slipped in during his endless telephone rants.
Stanley did not always extend the same generosity to Farah. And yet she always responded with love—always—acting from compassion not a desire for comeuppance. She delivers sharp and honest criticism with caring language, and yet never hesitates to give someone their flowers now. These are qualities I have long admired in her—qualities I wish permeated university culture. For three decades at least, her extraordinary writing, teaching, mentoring, and activism have brought a praxis of radical love to an academy that doesn’t love us back. In this period of increasing polarization exacerbated by a toxic and profoundly unequal academic star system, Farah models a different way of thinking and listening, a different vision of pedagogy, a different university, a different universe. To paraphrase Baraka, she is an intellectual of staggering dimension, now. It disturbs me that so few people follow her lead. But a recent event that gave Farah her flowers now suggests that things may be changing.
On September 23 and 24, 2022, hundreds of scholars and artists attended a symposium at Yale titled “Flowin’: Breakthroughs in Black Feminist Jazz & Literary Studies in Celebration of Farah Jasmine Griffin.” Yale Professor Daphne Brooks and a crew of colleagues from around the country initially planned to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery (2002), but decided to extend the celebration to her entire oeuvre. Literary and music scholars, philosophers, historians, poets, painters, photographers, journalists, activists, friends and family members responded to the call, including Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Saidiya Hartman, Cornel West, Deb Willis, Ellie Hisama, Nina Eidsheim, Michael Veal, Gayle Wald, Alexandra Vasquez, Nichole Rustin, Maxine Gordon, Sherrie Tucker, Diedra Harris-Kelley, and an astounding group of musicians, composers, poets, and intellectuals, including George Lewis, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jason Moran, Alicia Hall Moran, Dianne Reeves, Vijay Iyer, Courtney Bryan, Ursula Rucker, Tracie Morris, Guthrie Ramsey, and Salim Washington. Carrington, Bryan, and Washington played for Farah; Reeves sang for her; Ramsey rapped; Rucker rocked the mic; and the rest of us listened intently and sang her praises. We all felt the spirit of Toni Morrison, Billie Holiday, and pianist and composer Geri Allen.
In gathering to give Farah her flowers now, we were not commemorating the end of a career, but to reimagining a different future. The strongest evidence came from Farah’s former students who spoke passionately and emotionally of her impact, not only on their scholarship but their lives. La Marr Jurelle Bruce, Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Elleza Kelley, Patricia Lespinasse, Matthew Morrison, Jarvis McInnis, Imani Owens, Salamishah Tillet, and Courtney Thorsson made up this beautiful and diverse group of young intellectuals, scattered across disciplines, departments, and institutions. They spoke of her boundless generosity and care; the gentle thoroughness of her critique and absence of ego. And they embodied it in their manner, in their collective expression of joy for being together and their deep understanding of her work, epistemology, and ethics. To be Farah’s student was not to be part of a clique staking out and defending a particular intellectual posture, a member of a “G-hive” or a clone projecting an expression of her brilliance. Farah doesn’t take credit for her students’ accomplishments because she approaches learning as an act of mutuality. Her objective has always been to help advance their ideas, to guide them in an ethical direction and do so with love.
Above all, Farah’s greatest gift to the world is her grace. Grace is more than forgiveness, good will, or divine benevolence. For her it is a spiritual practice that requires cultivation, like flowers. She writes in her recent book, Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (2021),
Flowers are objects of gratuitous beauty. While I know there are scientific reasons for their variety of shape, shade, color, and scent, nonetheless they seem to exist just to give us a glimpse of their glory. And noticing them, attending to them, admiring them is an expression of gratitude. Our attentiveness to and expressions of gratitude for them is a prayer of sorts. They, like the songbirds overhead, are a reminder that though the world is full of ugliness, meanness, hatefulness, there is always, also, this: Grace, unmerited reward given to humans by the Divine. There is nothing we can do to earn it. It just is.
Put simply, there is no abolition or genuine freedom without grace. If we are willing and courageous enough to follow Farah’s example and act with grace, we can potentially remake academic culture and intellectual work toward abolition.
I first met Farah in the early 1990s, though neither one of us can remember where or how. We were young professors, she at the University of Pennsylvania and I at the University of Michigan. Separated by one year (I’m the elder), we had traveled somewhat similar paths as products of urban Black working-class communities. Like so many of our generation, we’d benefited from programs designed to save ghetto children. Farah seized the opportunities and hungrily consumed the educational offerings but refused to be saved. She would not leave South Philly or her people behind. A photo from the Philadelphia Tribune, June 9, 1981, of a beautiful, dark-skinned girl, smiling with deep set eyes and full cheeks, projects a mix of confidence, youthful hope, and determination. Above a caption indicates that the “daughter of Mrs. Emerson Griffin” will be commencement speaker for the graduating class of the Baldwin School, and “will attend Harvard University in the fall.” She carried her people to Harvard and to Yale, and they stay close to her at all times—the living, the dead, even the ancestors she only met in dreams and stories.
Her magnificent memoir, Read Until You Understand, tells the story of how she came to be under the loving care of her father and mother; her grandmother, aunts, and uncles; a neighborhood that cherished her and teachers that challenged her; and a world of Black life, love, art, and politics. Published in 2021, the book is not a late-life epiphany but a story she has been telling since I’ve known her. In an interview published twenty-three years ago, she explained, “I can trace my becoming an intellectual to both of my parents.” Her father, Emerson, “taught me to read music, taught me how to read books, shared his love of jazz and history and books with me.” Her mother, Wilhelmina or known affectionately as Mena, “always emphasized that my intellectual development had to be related to my spiritual development as well. . . . I would say that my father was most influential on my intellectual and political sensibilities, and my mother was most influential on my humanity, on the woman I have grown up to be.”
They gave her the grace to let her be “Jazzy,” Emerson’s term of endearment, and she witnessed enough grace to know that the real world is not reducible to good and evil. The premature death of her father as a result of police racism, the struggles of her widowed mother, the incarceration of her uncle, the divestment of her South Philly neighborhood, the tribulations and triumphs of her aunts, her grandmother’s memories, and the power of books, all led her to the question at the core of her entire oeuvre: “How have we as a people managed not only to survive but to thrive in the face of this massive onslaught of physical and discursive violence against us?” Farah has never been obsessed with white people or the source of anti-Blackness, but rather what we do in the face of catastrophe—how we move through and against it, how we imagine and what we create, how we can both love and destroy one another. Little wonder she was drawn to the work of Toni Morrison.
Farah possesses an uncanny ability to capture how people love, think, feel, and see as one elegant motion. In an exquisite 2001 essay for Harper’s Bazaar, she describes what she learned about being beautiful and self-possessed, dignified and grounded, from the women in her family: her mother Mena, her aunts Eunice and Eartha, and her grandmother Willie Lee. They taught her that style is not the same as bling. The point was never to display wealth but distinction, dignity, and originality. Beauty was more than clothes, hair, and make-up. It was a philosophy and a practice of love—of self, of family, of community. She studied, listened, and observed in the sacred seminar space on Saturday mornings in her grandmother’s kitchen:
As they sat around the avocado-green Formica table, I would sit on one of their laps and listen. Perfume, infidelity, neighborhood gentrification, Pucci prints, hot flashes—I was an attentive student of all these topics. Letting their worlds envelop me, I learned how to spin stories, construct dramatic sentences, exaggerate deftly, and even spell. (In the midst of heated gossip, my mother and sisters would spell out words that they didn’t want me to hear.)
Her aunt Eunice demonstrated how to love herself in a world where Black women are despised. She took pride in her dark body, posing nude for life drawing and painting classes, and taking up the canvas to create powerful representations of Black women. And she loved on her niece, “She paid for my dance lessons: ballet for posture and African dance for body appreciation, because ballet teachers often told little black girls that their behinds were too big.” Her other aunt, Eartha, modeled what it meant to refuse body-shaming decades before that phrase came into being. Farah recalled when she “grew to despise the body God granted me, she gave me confidence in my curves and fed me deep-fried chicken to make sure I maintained them.”
She sought out her people wherever she went, and found respite, love, and grace in protected spaces stewarded by Black women. During her first year at Harvard, she discovered a Black-owned salon in Boston’s South End called Lucielle. There no one judged her, questioned her bona fides, demanded that she prove her worth.
The place reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen, and that was criterion enough for me. Lucielle was a small honey-brown woman of about sixty years or so who coddled me, called me baby and fussed over ‘all that thick, beautiful hair on your head, Child!’ . . . Through hours of press and curls (no chemicals, thank you), cuts, trims, and braids I sat and prepared for another two weeks of Harvard. We would talk about politics, sex, relationships and God. After one of these sessions I always returned to Cambridge feeling relaxed and renewed.
Lucielle and others like her not only kept Farah grounded but, like an amulet, armed her to face the hostility and miseducation Black people endured at Harvard. Protection and grace enabled Farah to not only survive distinguished Harvard faculty who referred to Black Reconstruction-era children as “pickaninnies” but to confidently seek knowledge on her own terms. She found her mentors in Nathan Huggins, Werner Sollors, and Linda Perkins, and she brought others to campus when she co-organized the first Radcliffe Conference on the Study of Black Women in American History. Just a college senior, she organized a conference featuring Black feminist literary scholars Deborah McDowell and Mary Helen Washington, and historians Bettye Collier-Thomas and Paula Giddings!
Farah and I saw each other more frequently after I moved to New York University in 1995, the year she released her first book, Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative. It was not only a landmark text in Black Studies but a genuine model of interdisciplinarity, drawing on a wide range of cultural materials including music, literature, poetry, photography, visual art, and popular journalism. She quickly became one of my favorite historians and the most consequential interpreter of the first Great migration.
Building off Toni Morrison’s understanding of the place of ancestors in the culture, the book offers fresh insights into the critical role of the South—serving as a collective memory of terror, joy, and community on what was often considered sacred land, and shaping Black encounters in the urban North. By adopting and revising Georg Simmel’s concept of the “stranger” as the detached observer/narrator—the wanderer who is never fully part of a community—Farah changed our understanding of the migration narrative.
Her co-edited book with Cheryl Fish, A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing (1998) further elaborates on the liminality of Black migrants by focusing on travel. This collection of journal excerpts, diaries, magazine articles, and memoirs tells stories of people seeing and engaging the rest of the world, imagining new possibilities, renewing family ties, and making social connections. These writings serve as a meditation on citizenship, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the question of Black citizenship had not been settled in the United States. Travel linked to possible emigration not only rendered African Americans “transnational” people by default but also remained at the heart of a very long debate within Black communities about their sense of national belonging.
A year later Farah followed up with another edited book, Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854–1868. Today it remains one of the most remarkable epistolary texts I’ve read. Although only Primus’s letters to Brown survived, Farah’s indefatigable research, capacious imagination, and elegant prose fleshes out a story of an abiding love between two Black women in times of slavery, war, and abolition. Her brilliant general introduction, chapter prefaces, and incisive commentary throughout the text place this correspondence in historical context and help the reader navigate the letters over time and space. And her mic-dropping “Afterword,” much like W. E. B. Du Bois’s majestic final chapter of Black Reconstruction, “The Propaganda of History,” warns against trusting the official historians to tell the story of a people denied citizenship and deemed inferior and unimportant. That history is still very much embedded in collective memory and in the physical things Black people leave behind.
Farah completed both A Stranger in the Village and Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends as a member of the Jazz Study Group, an exclusive community of scholars and artists organized by Columbia University professor Robert O’Meally—of which I was also a part. We gathered every few months with eminent thinkers and creators working at the intersection of music, art, and Black Studies to discuss this thing called jazz. Our guests were legendary—drummer Max Roach; poet Amiri Baraka; pianist Geri Allen; vocalist, composer, and actress Abbey Lincoln; dancer Charles “Honi” Coles; among others. Farah became my chief co-conspirator in the group, mainly because I was working on a biography of Thelonious Monk and she was writing her anti-biography of Billie Holiday. Over the years we exchanged notes, chapters, and ideas on how to write about such larger-than-life figures. Farah’s steady encouragement gave me the confidence and direction I needed to tell Monk’s story. She taught me how to listen to this music as art, artifact, memory, breath, life, and feeling. And she showed me why we listen and why we need to pay attention to how others listen—how images and stories filter what we hear.
If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday came out in 2001. The book is a tour de force. It is a beautiful meditation on what it means to overturn the enduring image of Holiday as a tragic figure and see her as a thoughtful artist conscious of craft, world-making, and leaving behind a legacy that would influence future artists. Farah recasts our understanding of concepts such as “the politics of respectability” and professionalism, and illuminates the ways gender and race shape representations of culture and the labor of producing culture. She is not simply interested in rereading Holiday to come to some kind of truth, she wants to understand people’s investment in a particular reading of Holiday. She investigates the conservative reading of Holiday in the work of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison; explores the recovery of Holiday as a Black feminist project spearheaded by Ntozake Shange and Angela Davis; and ultimately advances a Black feminist critique by reconstructing singer, composer, and actress Abbey Lincoln’s interpretation of Holiday as a strong and inspiring artist but not a role model. Through her reading of Lincoln, Farah breaks the back of the hero-worshipping tendencies in jazz studies, provides a rich context for understanding the impact of 1960s social movements on Black female artists, and tells a moving story of Lincoln’s uphill battle to make her own music on her own terms.
By the time Farah’s book came out, she had moved to New York City. Columbia recruited her while I was visiting as the inaugural Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz Studies (two years later I left NYU for Columbia permanently). Farah became family, a sister to me and my wife Diedra, and an auntie to our then eleven-year-old daughter Elleza, who saw in Farah a model of what it meant to be a grown-up Black woman and the kind of scholar she would one day become. During the year of my Armstrong professorship (2001–2002), I created a new course called “Jazz and the Political Imagination.” If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery was the inspiration for the course, which I continue to teach using the book as the core text. Around this time, the Jazz Study Group held a public symposium on the direction of jazz studies, the papers from which were edited by Farah, Robert O’Meally, and Brent Hayes Edwards and published in 2004 as Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies. All the papers were terrific, but the piece that elicited the greatest response was Farah’s, “When Malindy Sings: A Meditation on Black Women’s Vocality.” It still stands, in my opinion, as the formative essay on the Black woman’s voice. As I told Farah during our closing conversation for “Flowin’”:
The essay connects Paul Laurence Dunbar to Abbey Lincoln to Miles Davis, to Fannie Lou Hamer and Marian Anderson and Mahalia, Aretha, Chaka Kahn, to Nina Simone casting spells, to Anita Ward ringing bells, to Bessie Smith to Cassandra Wilson to every anonymous Black woman who let a song go out of her heart, to Toni Morrison to Jean Toomer and Du Bois to Angela Davis to the entire Jazz Study Group to Daphne Brooks to Salamishah Tillet to Terri Lyne Carrington to Sheryl Lee Ralph and, back to Dianne Reeves.
The most important outcome of Farah’s work with the Jazz Study Group, however, was meeting pianist, composer, scholar, and educator Geri Allen—one of the greatest pianists in the jazz tradition since Art Tatum. They began a beautiful friendship and collaboration that lasted from 2005 until Geri’s untimely death in 2017. Farah tells the story of their friendship and collaboration in her lovely 2019 essay, “Following Geri’s Lead”—her flowers to Geri. As a witness to the beginnings of their extraordinary relationship, I felt like I was watching flowers bloom.
We both first met Geri in 2001 at a Jazz Study Group meeting. She gave a stunning presentation on Mary Lou Williams, her musical brilliance, as well as the forces arrayed against her as a woman. Farah and I fell in love with Geri on the spot, but we were too awestruck to do anything besides thank her and dig deeper into her music. Farah was already considering Mary Lou Williams for her next book project, which would eventually become Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013), an examination of the friendship, art, and activism of Williams, novelist Ann Petry, and dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus. Meanwhile, four years after that initial encounter, Farah and I found ourselves sitting together once again, listening to Geri present at a symposium on composer William L. Dawson at Emory University. The two of us were passing notes to each other like giddy teenagers, competing for her attention, fantasizing about future collaborations. We were watching a master at work, and she was nowhere near a piano. When Farah introduced herself, however, it was Geri who turned fan girl, exclaiming, “You’re that lady who wrote this book.” She pulled a well-read copy of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery from her bag. And the rest is, as they say, history. They bonded over the music, Mary Lou Williams, and the daunting task of honoring the lives and works of Black female artists. They went on to work on many things together. Most notably the pair collaborated with actor, director, and writer S. Epatha Merkerson to create two critically acclaimed musical theater projects, “Great Jazz Women of the Apollo” (2013) and “A Conversation with Mary Lou Williams” (2014).
Farah’s open display of love and respect for Geri was not fawning. One cannot fawn and work with another as an equal. I say this because Farah has a habit of giving folks their flowers now, with no expectation or desire of getting something in return. Read her and you will find essays honoring Toni Cade Bambara, Hortense Spillers, Ann duCille, Patricia Williams, Ntozake Shange, Melba Joyce Boyd and, of course, Toni Morrison. Her beautiful personal tribute to literary scholar Thadious Davis acknowledges how Davis inspired the kind of intellectual and artist she hoped to become: poet, storywriter, essayist, and critic bundled together. She discovered Davis in the anthology Black Sister (1981) edited by Erlene Stetson, finding her in what Hortense Spillers calls “a community of Black women writing.” Which is to say, Farah discovered Davis in the way she discovered Black women: in community. This very idea refuses the star system that rules academic culture and foments factionalism and jealousy.
Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English & Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, might be seen as an academic star by outsiders. But she has always resisted the academy’s hierarchical culture, both in her teaching and writing. She was still in graduate school when she decided to write in
a different voice, a voice that was much more like that I was reading and hearing. I got to thinking to myself, I cannot write about Black women and Black women’s texts in a language that I find ugly. . . . Then too it wasn’t my voice. It was the voice of some other people, but it wasn’t my voice. It took me a long time to gain the confidence to say to myself, ‘You know what? I am going to write about these ideas in the voice that comes most naturally to me.’
Farah’s voice has become a compass for me. I saw her use that voice to resist Columbia University’s aggressive expansion into Harlem; to fight for a better future for Black girls; to call for freedom for Mumia Abu Jamal and all political prisoners; to demand more resources for Black Studies; to illuminate in text and speech the myriad ways Black people make life, art, and freedom in the face of catastrophe; and to teach her students that producing knowledge is a collective act with the potential—if not the imperative—to remake our world. She is not one to impart esoteric knowledge from behind a lectern. Rather, she gets down in the chaos of complex thinking alongside her students and the communities she cares about, listening, learning, encouraging curiosity, and seeking clarity. She found her voice under the loving tutelage of her parents, in the “communiversity” of South Philly, and through countless encounters with books, art, and politics. Now that voice finds expression in a shared vision of what the university and the world can be.
Farah still has more work ahead of her—more students to train, more art and scholarship to create—but she has already made our world better. It’s up to the rest of us to follow Farah’s flowers.