Author A. J. Verdelle on writing, teaching, and her friendship with Toni Morrison. Plus: An excerpt from Verdelle’s book Miss Chloe.
In 2022, three years after Toni Morrison died, A. J. Verdelle, AB’82, published Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison (Amistad). Their decades-long friendship began with a blurb Morrison supplied—“Truly extraordinary”—for Verdelle’s debut novel, The Good Negress (Algonquin, 1995).
Verdelle began her teaching career at Princeton, where Morrison taught. She now runs the creative writing department at Morgan State University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was your College experience like?
Very difficult. There were 17 African American students in my class. We were very conspicuous, though no one seemed to notice how difficult it was for us.
But the College opened me up to my minuscule place in a broad world—and the idea that my place might not be so minuscule, if I found a way to engage with what inspired me to think, research, and wonder.
Any particularly memorable professors?
Marvin Zonis [professor emeritus of business administration at Chicago Booth (1936–2020)], who taught SOSC, taught me not to use the word interesting. Interesting means, either you have nothing to say or you did not read the material.
I still quote the Aims of Education address, which for my year was given by Richard Taub, [Paul Klapper Professor Emeritus in the Social Sciences (1937–2020)]. He said, the sooner you accept that you know nothing, the better your experience of the College will be.
You finally allowed yourself to pursue writing once you had a full-time job, running your own statistics consulting firm. When did you find the time?
I always was an early riser. I made a schedule that started with a.a.m.—very early morning. Then a.m. and p.m. It ended with p.p.m.—right before I went to bed. I would use the a.a.m. to write and the p.p.m. to type.
I still tend to write longhand. If you read any of the creativity literature, it emphasizes the investment of your body in your work. For writers, that could be handwriting.
In Miss Chloe, you explain how you came to call your debut novel The Good Negress. How do you feel about that title?
I love it. One of my language projects is to un-erase things. Negress is a word nobody uses. The fact that it’s a good Negress nods to the negativity in the language.
Wendy [Weil, Verdelle’s former agent], who was Jewish, said, “You can’t name it that. It would be like calling something The Good Jewess.” I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about being Jewish. But I don’t think that Negress upsets people. It comes out of a past I know.”
In Miss Chloe, you also share the story of your second novel, which is about Black cowboys. Editors requested three revisions that required three years each. And it’s still unpublished.
I put it down for Miss Chloe and now I’m back. I’m trying to get the cowboys off my desk in the next five to six months.
One of my former students at Princeton told me which draft she thought was best. She said, in the beginning, the editors were just telling you what to do with the White characters. But once they started on the Black characters, that’s when the book went bad. I thought that was cute.
When Toni Morrison was nine, she had an argument with a friend about whether there was a God. And the girl said, “No,” and Toni Morrison said, “Yes,” and the girl finally said, “I’ve been praying for two years for God to give me blue eyes, and nothing has happened.” Nine years old. That was the beginning of her book The Bluest Eye [Rinehart and Winston (1970)].
So some stories are seeds that take a long time to sprout. The manuscript has been in existence for at least 10 years. I’m sure it’ll be alright.
How did you get interested in Black cowboys?
My grandfather on my father’s side was from Texas. He was a stevedore, unloading and reloading cattle and their accoutrements. One in four cowboys was Black. But they were erased.
I’m also interested in money, because Black people used to be money. Black people who escaped slavery were “stealing” themselves from their plantation owners.
Stealing the West, creating banks, branding cattle—all that is about money. We were branded too. So my cowboy story comes out of America’s money story.
You teach creative writing at Morgan State University and Lesley University. Does teaching drain your creative energy or feed it?
I love teaching. I feel called to teaching. I’ve been tutoring since I was a kid. People became my friends because it was easy for me to do their homework. So it started out nefariously.
My teaching makes me feel like, on a daily basis, I’m doing something useful with my life. Writing is invisible. Sometimes it looks like you don’t do anything. You don’t have on the right clothes, you don’t go outside. It’s invisible until you have the book.
What was it like to write about Toni Morrison?
It was an exercise in grieving. It was such an amazing surprise, such an incredible gift, that I got to just sit around with her. Those individual times were really special.
One of the greatest beauties of writing is that when you write things down, it opens up space in your brain. I would write memories down and new memories would come.
Writing about Morrison, it had to be polished. It had to be written as beautifully as I could, because I’m writing about the beautiful writer. She wrote about such horrors with such beautiful language.
What did you learn during the process of writing the memoir?
Especially as I’m watching Toni Morrison’s books being banned, I think about how Morrison very bluntly said, “Racism is a distraction.” I had heard her say that once or twice, and I wasn’t really sure.
But when I started to write about it, I realized how beautifully and succinctly true that is. As long as you’re talking about racism, you’re not figuring out, What can I do? What am I good at? How am I going to reach my own goals? This racism that’s being poured down on you is designed to keep you from becoming.
Writing Miss Chloe really broke that open for me.
Birth of a Writer
For most writers and scholars and readers, library experiences rise up as brain baptism. We don’t know the significance of these edifices and institutions when we’re first encountering them, when we’re young. But even as children, we feel the power of these repositories. When our language catches up to our experiences, we are able to describe the indescribable: libraries as hallowed ground and sites of awakening.
My mother—my stake in the ground—had a small but potent book collection in the house. New titles, mostly. The emerging array of contemporary Black books. I read indiscriminately.
My mother’s library was where I first encountered Toni Morrison. The mother-curated reading shelf in our house offered exponentially more entertainment than dictionaries or cereal boxes, Weekly Readers, or the pale and tepid Scholastic selections we were set up to buy. Books I loved the most: the Negro Heritage Library (ten volumes)—a gift from Ma Howell; The Black Book, which I did not yet associate with Toni Morrison; and my all-time childhood favorite, Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown. I did not associate Claude Brown with Morrison, either, but time told the truth: Morrison was editor for both The Black Book and Claude Brown. Decades will pass before I learn about editing as an activity or about Morrison as an editor. I learn the former first, which helps prepare me for my encounters with Toni Morrison.
Claude Brown passed in 2002. I was elsewhere—chasing a leaping toddler and paying in sufficient attention. I do not remember Morrison mentioning this to me, but I wish I had known to mention this to her. We could have raised a glass to dear Claude. I would have loved to hear her stories about launching his important book. Manchild in the Promised Land has sold four million copies. I hope he had heirs. I could have told Miss Chloe how many times I’d read his book while a babe cavorting in brand-new words.
My mother recounts having gone to see Toni Morrison in person when The Bluest Eye was first published. They attended, at Ma Howell’s insistence, and because Ma Howell refused to learn to drive, my mother always played chauffeur. Morrison skips no generations in her character construction, or in her appeal. Ma Howell was a driving intellectual force in our family. She was older than Toni Morrison but identified intimately with Howard; her alma mater anchored her neighborhood. My mother and Toni Morrison are near the same age. So, I imagine that my mother might have been more aligned with Morrison’s books. I was not of an age to discuss my mother’s book collection with my grandmother, though Ma Howell did call us on the phone every day. I might have been more likely to talk about books with my mother, but with three daughters and a job, my mother was busy, busy, busy. So, I read on my own and judged the books on my own. I was not much of a judge.
Because it was in the house, on the shelf, I read The Bluest Eye too early, really. I read Manchild prematurely as well. I read Song of Solomon, too, there at home. I did not encounter Sula until after I left for college, though it was released years before. As a tween and teenager, I was convinced my mother didn’t notice me reading her books. But there having been no Sula on the shelf makes me wonder. I’m not sure I was as unmonitored as I presumed.
Sula is Morrison’s fire book, her wanton logic book, her sex book, her “these folks are crazy” book. My college students respond so much more passionately to Sula than to The Bluest Eye. When I mention the word self-loathing to my students, that’s a guaranteed shutdown—sometimes, for the rest of the semester. After all these years, the notion of self-hatred remains unexamined and, therefore, feels abrasive and shocking and abrupt. So, in the interest of a responsive class, The Bluest Eye was removed from classroom rotation. Sula, my students can talk about until the cows come home. They get into arguments. They raise their voices. The energy they bring to Sula makes it worth choosing that novel. These are first-year students; sometimes we tussle to get them to read.
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison wrote of a young girl’s extreme vulnerability among the vicious (private and public) forces of our time. (“Public” includes Hollywood.) When you have learned to read but are just learning about life, print equals truth. A book has always been holy to me—holy and tangible and real and sometimes, not always, predictive. Books certainly cast a warning shot. Seriously, books shape your mind. All children should read as thoroughly as is possible. The muscle of the mind needs development in everyone. And then, as the child ages into older childhood and adolescence, they start to question and compare. Knowledge travels with them from one book to the next. The landscape of life awaits discovery in books. African Americans were forbidden from reading—to prevent eventualities like right now, when the oppressors can be out-read, outreasoned, and outrun by the oppressed. The Bluest Eye offered me an education at a very early age; protected me, therefore. Education is insurance against stupidity and also against being caught unaware.
The Bluest Eye raises the “white doll” question. Now, it’s hard to imagine the universe of toys without Black dolls, but we’re looking at progress. During my childhood, toy manufacture did not include or consider us. White dolls were the only dolls (except for rare, handmade collectibles) when I was doll age. Since a very young age, I was uncomfortable with white dolls. Never liked them, never wanted them. This was a personal issue for me. I was even destructive to my sister’s white dolls—which I regret. But the words for this were laid out for all takers in The Bluest Eye. Morrison spoke my language, and I grew up learning hers.