AAADS Chair & Professor of English Farah Jasmine Griffin – DT004
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Dean Harris is joined by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia, and the chair of the University’s new Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. Professor Griffin is a scholar of African American literature, music, history and politics, and 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; Clawing At the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever; and most recently Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II.
Professor Griffin speaks with Dean Harris about her scholarly trajectory into African-American studies, her research on the Black Migration and Harlem of the 1940s, and the establishment of the new Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia.
Farah Jasmine Griffin
William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies and Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies; Chair, African American and African Diaspora Studies
AAADS Chair & Professor of English Farah Jasmine Griffin – DT004
Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia, and the chair of the new department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies. Farah is the author of many books, including Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, and most recently Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II.
I invited Farah to the Dean’s Table to reflect on how she became interested in African-American studies, to talk about her book on the Black Migration, to discuss her research on Harlem, and to give us insight into the process of establishing a Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia.
Fred: Welcome to the Dean’s Table, Farah.
Farah Griffin: Thank you Fred. I’m glad to be here.
Fred: Let’s start with your first book, What Set You Flowin’, a book about the great migration. As you know, it’s a topic that’s been studied for decades, but your book is the first succinct study of black migration portrayed through African-American literature, letters, music, and painting. What got you interested in studying the black migration?
Farah Griffin: I think there are a few sources of that. One is growing up knowing that migration was part of my family story, that I grew up in Philadelphia, and my grandparents on both sides were migrants. I knew that, and it sort of informed everything from what we ate to what people thought of as home, and so I think that was it. Then I remembered as a teenager reading novels like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and realizing, “Oh, he’s writing about migration,” that it must have been more than just my family or the people in my neighborhood. So that’s what first made me begin to think about it.
And then in graduate school I was reading very widely, broadly, in African-American literature and African-American sociology.
And I realized that the social scientists, the historians, the sociologists, had really spent a lot of time talking about documenting, thinking about migration, and that there was this whole other wing of the artists who had not been talked about in that same way. So that’s what made me decide that’s what I wanted to study a little more and focus my dissertation on.
Fred: Where were your grandparents from?
Farah Griffin: My maternal grandparents are from Georgia and South Carolina, near the Sea Islands, and my paternal grandparents are also from Georgia.
Fred: So you mentioned this earlier, but did growing up in Philly give you a unique experience about the black migration?
Farah Griffin: Oh, I think so. First of all, everybody who I grew up around, they were all the children of migrants or grandchildren of migrants, and most of them – in Philly, most of those people had come from the Carolinas, especially North Carolina and Georgia.
We all had these grandmothers who were Southern, and they were … we attributed so much to their southernness. The fact that they could cook, we contributed it to their southernness. If they had a certain sense of religiosity, we attribute it.
And I think that without knowing it we were, for lack of a better word, theorizing the richness of that experience because we felt that those of us who had people who were from the south had a better grounding in some ways than … There were certain bad boys, I remember, and I remember us saying, “Nobody ever cooks them a meal.” Like, “They buy cheesesteaks and that’s what they eat,” but there was something about if you had somebody who-
Fred: Good cooking.
Farah Griffin: …cooked you a meal.
Fred: Some greens-
Farah Griffin: Some greens-
Fred: …some black-eyed peas, some cornbread.
Farah Griffin: Exactly, and you felt like you had to have a balanced plate. Those women cooked all day long, so I think we felt like there was something that grounded us even as we were growing up in this very urban setting. Philadelphia, I didn’t realize it then, but I think that Philadelphia was a kind of up south city. It was very much in touch with its migrant experience. Yeah.
Fred: Yeah. Yeah, I still feel that as I go to Philadelphia.
Farah Griffin: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Fred: I read something of yours where you talked about your mom and the women or the girls in the community, and I remember this particular story which resonates with me so much about New Year’s Day. I was a kid in Atlanta, as I said before, and my great-grandmother would have me get up early New Year’s Day … We lived right around the corner from her … Because there were no women who could go into the house on New Year’s Day. If you did, you had bad luck for the entire year, right?
Farah Griffin: Yep.
Fred: So, I was the youngest, and I did this somewhere between 8 years and 13 years old, but I remember you talking about this experience in the essay.
Farah Griffin: Absolutely.
If you came to her house on New Year’s Day, and she had not had a man cross her step, you were not getting in. Yes, it was very much a part of that tradition. As traditional as having black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day, was that a man had to be the first person to enter into her house, otherwise she would have a year of bad luck, right? I think we carry all those kinds of traditions with us. My grandmother, I remember, would make us be quiet in a storm. You couldn’t-
Fred: Oh yeah, you couldn’t be on the phone …
Farah Griffin: You couldn’t be on the phone. You had a turn-
Fred: The Lord’s doing his work.
Farah Griffin: That’s right, “The Lord is doing his work. You respect it.” You turn the lights out, and my father was blasphemous because he would go through the house and turn the lights on and everything, and we just knew that that was gonna cause us all kinds of trouble, but I think all those things they brought with them from the south, and it continued to inform our existence in the city.
Fred: Yeah, I call it the second diaspora, right?
Farah Griffin: Yeah.
Fred: The southern diaspora because-
Farah Griffin: That’s right.
Fred: … I feel every time I would … When I left Georgia and went to Washington, which is still a southern city, and then on to Chicago, upstate New York here, one of the first things I searched out was a good soul food restaurant.
Farah Griffin: That’s right. Right. Yeah.
Fred: As well as a decent church that I could relate to, but the migration has had such a profound impact on black Americans.
Farah Griffin: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the reasons why I love Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns because she treats it like the epic that it is, an epic of a people, and so it truly is, and the ways that those southern spaces shape those northern cities. So, like Detroit and Chicago being shaped by the migrants there, and Philly and Newark being shaped by the migrants who came up that route. I think there’s still so much that needs to be told about that story.
Fred: Yeah. I want to shift a little bit, but still focus on Philadelphia. You knew this great man by the name of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, who wrote that wonderful book I read on race and law as an undergraduate, the book In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process. How did you meet Judge Higginbotham?
Farah Griffin: Yeah, so it really warms my heart to think about him.
There was an organization called something like The Association for Negro Affairs,
As part of the organization there was a youth kind of development program and got black students to be introduced to … At that time the professions were medical profession, legal profession. And he had summer enrichment classes for students and after school enrichment classes. I became involved in that program when I was a high school student, and I was at a very kind of a scholarship student at a kind of elite school, and I didn’t really need the academic enrichment, so then I was placed in the internship. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, so I was placed with legal professionals, and one of the prestige internships was with A. Leon Higginbotham, who was a federal court judge. He had always had students. I was the first girl. He’d always had boys.
I think I started working for him in 10th grade after school, and we became very close. We decided that he would be my godfather, so when I refer to my godfather, people think that I come from this elite back family who … And I got to be A. Leon Higginbotham’s … He stood up at my christening, but that’s not it. We chose each other, and I remember him saying, “How shall we define this relationship?” and we decided that he would be my godfather. He was my mentor, and a father figure. He had already written In a Matter of Color, and it was extraordinary to me that you could get a law degree and still write history, and so I became his research assistant.
Fred: Oh really?
Farah Griffin: Mm-hmm (affirmative). My senior project was working out at Penn’s law library doing research for him.
Fred: Wow. That’s amazing.
Farah Griffin: I did research for what would become the second book that he wrote.
Fred: Wow. That’s amazing. You went on to Harvard where you were undergraduate there. What was that experience like?
Farah Griffin: Harvard was the kind of place where if you were a self-starter it was amazing. If you worked well independently it was extraordinary. It was also very easy to get lost between the cracks. I think I thrived there for very clear reasons.
Fred: And what’s that?
Farah Griffin: I had a rooming group of five other young black women, and we were family, and we got each other through the difficult emotional stuff. And then I had two extraordinary professors, and most students at Harvard didn’t get to develop those relationships-
Fred: Who were they?
Farah Griffin: The historian Nathan Huggins.
Fred: Oh wow. Okay.
Farah Griffin: And the literary scholar Werner Sollors. Both of them had been recruited from Columbia. Yeah.
Fred: I didn’t know that.
Farah Griffin: I took classes with them, and I actually think that in my other classes I would have been lost. I was in big lecture classes. Nobody noticed me, but they took notice and they supported me. I couldn’t make up my mind between history and literature. They made it so that I could do both. In Nathan Huggins’ class, I read all the sort of canonical black history books, but also the social sciences, right? I always felt like I … I never felt like I was a social scientist, but I felt like social science was informing me. Then through Werner, I had been reading back literature on my own, but he was the one that gave me a kind of systematic way to think about the creation of a canon, and so those professors made the difference. One extraordinary experience for me at Harvard … To me, this explains Harvard to me. There was one black woman on the faculty, just one, and that was-
Fred: Who was that?
Farah Griffin: … Eileen Southern, the music-
Fred: Oh, the music-
Farah Griffin: … historian, right?
Farah Griffin: She was the only one. There were no classes on black women. There were starting to be … Nathan Huggins had black history classes.
Fred: Right. Was he chair when you were there of-
Farah Griffin: He was chair of the department.
Fred: Department. Okay.
Farah Griffin: Right. I remember a professor named Billy Joel Harris came and he taught a black male … Black men, black women literature course. There was a young woman there named Janet Bixby. We were undergraduates, and we were both discovering sort of black women’s history on our own. She was a young white woman, and it was not represented on the curriculum at all, so we knew that there was this burgeoning field, and we went to Professor Huggins, and we went to people over at Radcliffe, and they gave us support and money. We had this major academic conference, where we invited scholars in the field who were shocked … They thought Harvard was finally doing it. They didn’t know it was these two little undergraduates because we had the resources, and so we were able to have one of the first conferences on the history of black women in America at Harvard because we did it-
Fred: History of black women, wow.
Farah Griffin: … on our own. We were able to do it, and we came up with the idea, and it was a critique of Harvard, really, but then they gave us all the resources to do what we wanted to do.
Fred: Do you recall some of the people you invited?
Farah Griffin: Mm-hmm. Paula Giddings was the keynote. When and Where I Enter had just come out I think. Bettye Collier-Thomas spoke. Mary Helen Washington spoke. I think Deborah McDowell spoke.
It was a who’s who of who would become the field.
Farah Griffin: Yeah.
Fred: What was African-American studies like at Harvard when you were there?
Farah Griffin: Fiercely under-resourced. It had a faculty who was very committed.
And then there were – it was one of those places where everybody came through. People would come through and teach a class. I first met Alice Walker there. I first met Toni Morrison there. Because people came and gave readings, and you got to meet them, but it was very under resourced, and our professors were very devoted to us, unlike the rest of Harvard, you know?
Farah Griffin: You got a lot of attention in that department. We were in this little house on Dunster Street, way on the margins of campus.
Fred: Which is not the case today
Farah Griffin: Not the case today at all. Not at all. Yeah.
Fred: … and that’s been wonderful. But we’re going to get there a bit, but we’re going to get there through Yale because I couldn’t think of a greater contrast-
Farah Griffin: I know. Yes.
Fred: … than your experience at Harvard, and when you went to graduate school at Yale, which I would … This was sort of the golden age of black studies.
Farah Griffin: Yeah.
Fred: The faculty there included Henry Louis Gates, who’s now chair of African-American studies at Harvard, Hazel Carby, the philosopher Cornel West, the feminist theorist Bell Hooks, political theorist Adolph Reed, many others. What was that experience like?
Farah Griffin: It was mind-blowing. You’re right. It was the exact opposite of Harvard. Yale was so different in many ways that I kind of wish I had gone there as an undergraduate. Skip had just left when I got there.
Fred: Oh, had he? Okay.
Farah Griffin: He had just left, but he was felt. Robert Stepto was there. John Blassingame was there.
Fred: Yeah. The historian.
Farah Griffin: Mm-hmm. The art historian Sylvia Boone was there. It was just vibrant and it was just amazing, and I think about my cohort of graduate students. When I got there, the people who welcomed me were Tera Hunter, who would go on to become a historian, and Saidiya Hartman was there.
Fred: That’s amazing.
Farah Griffin: Errol Louis, who’s now a well-known journalist was there. So it was like both the people teaching, but also my classmates. It was probably the richest intellectual experience I had, both in and out of the classroom. I took courses with … I remember my first year, I think it was, I took courses with both Adolph Reed and Cornel West even though they were feuding. I had both of them.
Fred: At the same time?
Farah Griffin: I had one in the fall, and like one in the spring or something.
Fred: Oh, in the same year.
Farah Griffin: And I learned so much from both of them. Again, I think that was the interdisciplinary model, right? So here I was, I knew I was interested in history and/or literature.
Fred: Oh so you hadn’t decided yet?
Farah Griffin: Which is why I did American studies. It was an interdisciplinary discipline.
Fred: Oh, you’re not in English and …
Farah Griffin: Not in English. It was I did American studies. And I took a course with Robert Stepto, and a course with John Blassingame, and a course on black women’s history with a woman named Deborah Thomas.
So yeah, it was really – it was one of the most important experiences of my intellectual life. Just the excitement – the Hazel came just as I was embarking on my dissertation, she was there, and on my dissertation committee.
Fred: Oh, she was?
Farah Griffin: She was on my committee. Michael Denning, her husband, was also on my committee. Bryan Wolf, Jean-Christophe Agnew, the French feminist theorist Margaret Homans was there. And you were encouraged just to explore and bring these conversations together, so it was amazing. It really was.
Fred: Okay. I didn’t know that you had done your work in American studies.
Farah Griffin: Yeah.
Fred: I thought it was English and comparative lit. But I still have this question because you do work in literature. Why is it important that you can use literature to understand African-American studies?
Farah Griffin: Yeah. I think that literature has been such an important way for black thinkers to sort of think through what it means to be black in America, in the new world, in the world. Our most important literary figures are among our most important thinkers.
And so I think it’s true of literature in general, but especially of African-American literature, that one is not fully informed about black life if you aren’t also reading what black creative writers have had to say about that experience. And that’s what Who Set You Flowin’ let me do. It let me put them in conversation with the social scientists who I was reading. So right with Drake and Cayton.
Fred: Black Metropolis.
Farah Griffin: Exactly.
Fred: They wrote about Chicago.
Farah Griffin: Right.
Farah Griffin: Right.
Fred: Right. Right. So I want to shift a bit because after you leave Yale, you return to Philadelphia after graduate school. And you taught for several years at University of Pennsylvania. It must have been great finding a wonderful job in your home town. Was that your plan all along?
Farah Griffin: No. It was not my plan. I had no intention of returning to Philadelphia, ever. So my actual first job was in Hartford at Trinity College.
Fred: Oh, it was?
Farah Griffin: I had a dissertation fellowship that turned into a job.
Fred: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Farah Griffin: And it was, you know, it was a great place to start. Then this job opened up at Penn. I got a call from Evelyn Higginbotham, who was my godfather’s wife at the time, and she said “You need to apply for this job.” And I was like …
Fred: She was on faculty at that time in the history department.
Farah Griffin: She was on faculty. She was on faculty in history department, but she was on that search committee. So she said “Send your stuff and apply for this job.” So I sent it, and then when I got the offer, I was like “There’s no way I can tell my momma that I got a job at a premiere institution in Philadelphia and not go.” So I went back home, and Penn was a very good place for me as a young professor. Yeah.
Fred: That’s amazing. You’re more brave than I was because I had an opportunity to go back to Atlanta to teach at Emory.
Farah Griffin: Oh, did you? How did you say no?
Fred: It was very difficult.
Farah Griffin: Of course.
Fred: It was very difficult. But you know, at least for me, being that southerner, I have aunties, uncles, cousins, godmother, godfathers, great grandmother, everybody-
Farah Griffin: Everybody.
Fred: I just saw all the chores that I would be delaying.
Farah Griffin: Oh yeah. And that’s what I ended up doing. I went home, and you know, I kind of grown up on the edges of Penn’s campus. I was one of those little kids who was in the summer sports camp that Penn had, and I’d worked for Judge Higginbotham, and my family really looked up to that, Penn. But I went home, and I was home. My teachers were still there, and my family, and I was called on for every crisis.
Fred: Yes. And every program.
Farah Griffin: Everything. Everything. Yes. I did have that experience.
Fred: You survived it.
Farah Griffin: I survived it. But one thing I have to say was the chance to come to New York, for me, was also a chance to be anonymous. I longed for anonymity.
Fred: Right. Right. So how did you end up coming to Columbia?
Farah Griffin: So I had agreed to be undergraduate chair of the English department at Penn. 500 majors. One of the biggest majors, and I was trying to get the curriculum together and all of this stuff, and I was just going insane, and I was sitting in that big office, and I got a call. Phone rang, and it was Manning Marable.
Fred: And for our listeners, could you tell them Manning Marable …
Farah Griffin: So Manning Marable was an extraordinary historian, a kind of historian of the black left, of African-American history, and he had come to Columbia in 1993 to found the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. And he was a kind of leading figure in that epoch of black studies. The black studies movement.
And I also was a part of something else here at Columbia already, which was the Jazz Study Group founded by Robert O’Meally, and that was an interdisciplinary group of scholars and journalists and artists from all over. A national group. And that had become sort of the center of my intellectual life, and Bob was sort of building jazz studies here. So it was those two very different enterprises that spoke to me. One, speaking to me intellectually and politically, and the other one speaking to kind of where my work was going in terms of jazz studies.
And so I looked forward to the opportunity to maybe be here. But it was that call from Manning that really made me go ahead and submit my material.
Fred: So coming here, I don’t know if you were working on Harlem prior to coming to work-
Farah Griffin: Yeah, I was not.
My work on Harlem really took shape when I got here.
Fred: As you got here.
Fred: So tell us then about your most recent book, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II. What was that book about?
Farah Griffin: So really what I like to say is it’s a book about a place and a time. And three women artists let me tell that story about this place and this time. It’s kind of a love song to New York, and to Harlem, and to a generation of people. The genesis of that book, and again, it would not have taken the shape it did if I were not here, the genesis of the book was I did some research for, at the request of, commissioned by the playwright and producer George C. Wolfe. He was doing a show at the Apollo, and he wanted some research to be done, and he asked me to do it.
I remember him saying to me “What I wanna know is, the average man standing on the corner in August 1943, when the riot breaks out, what is he thinking?” And I thought “How am I gonna find out what he’s thinking?” So that started me down the path doing this Harlem research, and then I wrote two sets of liner notes for reissues of songs. Reissues of a Dinah Washington album and a Lena Horne album. Being an academic, I totally over-researched, and I spent hours in the Schomburg, and fell in love with the 1940s as a period, and it was a period that I felt was under-studied and under-researched. And I fell in love with black people of that period, that generation. It’s just amazing.
Farah Griffin: Extraordinary generation.
And so I had done all this research, and I knew that I wanted to write about this period, and I wanted to write about black people in this period. I just didn’t know what my angle was going to be. What I realized, I started noticing that there were a number of women who kind of emerge in this period, and so one question was what was it about this period that made it possible for them? And they were very different from the Harlem renaissance women, and how were they different?
I started with an assumption. I always tell my students that your responsibility as a scholar is to dig past your assumptions. So my assumption was that these women were working and that they didn’t get any of the attention that they deserved for their work because they were women, and that’s the way it goes. But I realized in doing my work, when I dug deeper, is that they got a lot of attention. And the question wasn’t that they didn’t get attention, it was why didn’t we know them now? What happened?
The Cold War happened. McCarthyism happened. That’s what happened. So after that it became “Okay, which of the women am I gonna write about?” Because I had so many of them. And I picked the three because they were three people who had gotten critical acclaim in these three different areas who were all interested in questions of class as well as race and gender. And yet, they weren’t household names.
So I thought one, I could explain how that happened, and two, maybe I could interest people in learning more about them. So I got Ann Petry, who I’d worked on since my dissertation, Mary Lou Williams who I’d begun learning about, and Pearl Primus who I knew less about. And I hadn’t written about dance. I’d written about music, I’d written about literature, but the challenge was to write about dance. And Mary Lou I almost didn’t write about because her music was so hard.
She’s a pianist, but she’s also a composer and arranger. She arranged for Andy Kirk, she arranged for Duke Ellington. She was a genius. Her music is very complex and complicated, but I had a good friend who was a co author in another project, and I said “I’m not writing about Mary Lou. She’s too hard.” And he said “That’s why you should write about her. You might learn something.” So that’s how I got those three women.
Fred: [00:37:03] You’ve also written about the famous collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, both of whom I just love. Can you say a little bit about that?
Farah Griffin: Yeah, that was a project that was brought to me by my co author. He had been approached by an editor who read an article that he wrote to Selene Washington. He’s a musician and a scholar, and they’d ask him to write about a set of records, a specific little set of records that they did, and he asked me to co-write it with him, and he was someone who was deeply entrenched in Trane, and loved Trane. And I was deeply entrenched in Miles, and I loved Miles.
And so we collaborated and wrote this book about their time together, and the way they sort of … I think that initially the editor had in mind this sort of combative competitive relationship, and I think it was around the time there was a big show in New York of Matisse and Picasso, about their rivalry. The rivalry of the two great geniuses. But that’s not Miles’ and Trane’s story at all.
And so we decided to take it on, but to tell a different story about how they push each other, but not in that kind of fiercely, break you down, competitive battle way. Miles is actually the more accomplished figure when Trane enters into it. And then Trane becomes this extraordinary artist in his own right, and eventually has to leave and follow his own path with Miles’ blessing.
I enjoy any opportunity to collaborate. Some of my best experiences are collaborative ones, intellectual collaborations, and that was one of those.
Fred: So let’s talk about the new department. You’ve been named chair.
Farah Griffin: Yes.
Fred: And you’ve been busy.
Farah Griffin: Woo have I, yes.
Fred: So many of our listeners might not know this, but it took years, if not decades, for Columbia to establish the department in Black studies. Why do you think it took so long?
Farah Griffin: I think there are a number of factors. The first time you have people talking about a department of African-American studies is around ’68. ’68 is a watershed moment at Columbia for a number of reasons, and among the demands that the students make is for a department and for more courses in African-American studies, and we begin to see a number of courses on the books.
And then again in the 80s when students begin to make demands for like ethnic studies and African-American studies, you see that again. In ’93, when other institutions are either creating African-American studies departments in the early ’90s, or reinvesting in them like Harvard did, what Columbia does, is Columbia recruits Manning Marable who is both a political scientist and a historian, to come and establish the institute, and Manning chose to do it as an institute because he believed that African-American studies was fundamentally an interdisciplinary enterprise, and Columbia, at that time, said that we don’t do interdisciplinary departments. We do discipline.
So Manning founds it largely as a almost a very social science heavy program. In that way it differed from Yale and from Harvard. Yale was more on the cultural studies model, and Harvard had like the literary studies part.
Fred: He wanted direct impact on politics and policy.
Farah Griffin: That’s exactly what Manning sought, was a direct impact on politics and policy. So he created it with that vision. When I came I was the only humanities scholar appointed in IRAAS. There was always talk of creating a department. Sometimes those of us in the institute were kind of … We like the sort of autonomy that institutes had, and yet, we didn’t have the autonomy to tenure and hire people. And then we had great leadership. We were able to pull some things off.
Fred: Yeah. It’s incredible.
Farah Griffin: We had Manning, and then of course Fred is being modest, but he was one of our great leaders.
Fred: Thank you.
Farah Griffin: Really I think it’s through what Fred did is when we really saw the limitations, because we, under your leadership, we did everything it was possible to do as an institute.
Fred: Fellows and kind of bringing people in …
Farah Griffin: Exactly. Exactly. We just brought more people in, you got resources to bring more people in. We did everything that we could do with that limitation, and we were hit up against because we also … I remember trying very hard to bring some people in, and not being able to get the kind of departmental partners that we needed to do that.
Fred: Yes. Very difficult.
Farah Griffin: Right? And so I-
Fred: And it was a miracle that were able to get the ones that we did.
Farah Griffin: That we did. Exactly. So I think it was that experience, coming out of your leadership, that said “Okay, maybe we’ve reached the limits of what an institute can do alone.”
Fred: Can do.
Farah Griffin: Under Sam Roberts we began having these extensive retreats, planning out what would go into a …
Farah Griffin: Proposal for the department. And then the recommendation that came out of that committee was that it’s time for IRAAS to go ahead and pursue departmentalization. My colleagues asked me to come front that effort, and so I did. And it was one of those things where the universe aligned. We were ready, through all the work that we had been doing over the decades, the university was ready, and so then it was just a matter of taking it through all the steps.
Fred: It’s been extraordinary. I am so happy. I am so happy.
Farah Griffin: It’s one of those things that we … And you know this, having worked through as director … There are few things in your career … Except for our books, right … Few things where you can set a goal, and make up a set of plans, and then see it through. And it’s collective. Again, talking about loving collaboration, this is something that we can own collectively.
Fred: Right. So what do you think the impact of the department will be on the field?
Farah Griffin: I think it’s gonna be incredible. I think that we already have a kind of a leadership in the field, because the people we have here and the work that we’re doing. And now we institutionalize that, and we provide support for it. It’s going to have impact in the kinds of knowledges that get produced, the kinds of people who we can attract here, so many people want to be at Columbia, to build upon the foundation that’s already here, and then, in the next two years, we hope to have a PhD program. And that’s going to be very impactful, because that’s the future of the field. It’s the future scholars that will shape the field, its directions, its discourses. And so I think it’s gonna be … It’s already been felt, but it’s gonna be felt even more deeply.
Fred: Now I have a final question, so you’re gonna have to give me some behind the scenes juicy tidbits here. You were on the Pulitzer Prize jury …
Farah Griffin: Yes I was.
Fred: … that selected rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Damn album for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner in music. Now many were surprised. I was elated. How did the jury come up with that decision?
Farah Griffin: Yeah, you know, the jury has the opportunity to … We listen to a lot of music, and it’s music at the highest level of achievement, and what we realized is some of the music that we were listening to across genres, like jazz and classical-
Fred: Classical. Which are usually the winner.
Farah Griffin: Right. Usually the winners. We were hearing a lot of influence of hip hop. Like we were hearing it in operas, and in jazz forms, and in classical forms. We could hear it. And so we thought that’s interesting, and yet we don’t have any hip hop here. And what people sometimes don’t know about the Pulitzer is that we get nominees, but the committee can also nominate. So that nomination came from the committee.
And there was no resistance at all. A member of the committee suggested it, some people backed it, other people said “Well, okay, let’s listen.” Because we had listened over three days, deeply. So let’s go home and really listen to this, and then we came back, and there was deep discussion, serious engagement with the music.
The committee that I was part of, we forwarded three nominations.
And two of them could be more defined in what we call Western classical music, and we felt that the Kendrick Lamar was right up there because his music is so capacious in its influences, and so we forwarded … We knew we were doing something historic. We did not know that the final committee was going to select it.
So even doing that already was something that was major. They weren’t allowed to tell us, but we started getting a feeling when we got a notice saying “there might be some press inquiries about the winner.” And that’s how we knew this is gonna be Kendrick.
And I think we all felt really good about the winner.
Fred: That’s incredible.
Farah Griffin: It was really amazing.
Fred: I wish I was a fly on the wall.
Farah Griffin: But I’m curious to see if, because of that, that it opened up for more hip hop nominations. And then people who are real hip hop heads, they were really happy, but they were like “I don’t know, wow, it’s too bad it couldn’t have been Nas at some point, or it couldn’t have been …”
And it’s true.
Fred: Yeah, because they were those before.
Farah Griffin: It’s true. Exactly. And I think one of the things we were aware of, you know, Duke Ellington never got the Pulitzer.
Fred: I did not know that.
Farah Griffin: Right. We don’t want to do to these art forms what has been done in the past, where you just miss them. You miss the boat.
Fred: And Coltrane got it way later.
Farah Griffin: Yeah, way later, like some special thing.
So I think that’s what we were also aware of too, it’s like, you know hip hop has been around a long time. It’s been around for decades, now. More than a couple of generations.
Fred: It’s about time.
Farah Griffin: So it’s about time.
Fred: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Well Farah, thanks so much for coming to the Dean’s Table. This has been incredible.
Farah Griffin: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Destry Maria Sibley with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are AJ Mangone and Airiayana Sullivan. Our lead researcher is Kala Deterville. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.