A. J. Verdelle recently published a book called Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison. I bought this book because I wanted to read about woman writer Toni Morrison. I wanted to know about Morrison’s life, about her character, her experiences and her personality. I bought this book to learn more about the famous woman writer that I adore and admire: Toni Morrison. I wanted to know some trivial and profound details about her. I had no idea who A. J. Verdelle was. I had never heard of her. And the truth is, I didn’t care. I only wanted her scoop, “the tea,” on Morrison. Isn’t that awful? It is. I know it is. I fully admit that it was a base instinct that prompted me to purchase this book.
I didn’t realize I felt that way until I was reading the book and getting irritated because it was more about Verdelle than Morrison. I grew impatient and angry. I almost wanted to stop reading. Where’s my tea?
But Verdelle won me over. I soon became very interested in her and her life, her work and the story she was telling. I became so interested in Verdelle’s story and her writing that I bought her novel, The Good Negress (published in 1995), and read it. And I am now anxiously awaiting the publication (hopefully soon) of her yet unpublished novel about Black Cowboys.
There is also a lot about Morrison in Verdelle’s book, Miss Chloe. I did feel satisfied in the end. I invite you to take the same ride as I did. Miss Chloe is a beautifully woven tapestry of memory, interaction, relationship, experience, opinion, history, and protest.
Verdelle is a High Priestess of Words. She dominates language. She attributes part of this talent and achievement to Morrison. Verdelle grew up reading Morrison. They share the same love for language, for reading, for libraries, for the written and spoken word, for command of vocabulary and the ability to name and rename.
They share the philosophy that command of language is power. That lack of command of language creates disadvantages. That if you can conquer a language, you can change realities.
With her command of language, Morrison was able to expose years of erasure and neglect for the Black population in the US. With her command of language and gift for storytelling and writing, she was able to offer new stories, new images, new realities and new characters onto the scene. She engaged in what she and Verdelle called “uncovery.” And she would not compromise the stories she wanted to tell to appease white audiences, editors or reviewers.
She was able, with her editorial skills and power, to usher in a new canon. The canon of Black American writers. She took advantage of her opportunities and her intellectual prowess to clear the path for those who would come after her. To blaze a huge trail right through white American literature and the literary establishment to gain a place at the top. She would then reach back and help those coming up behind her. Verdelle but one example.
The power of names and naming
It begins with names. The book is called Miss Chloe as a nod to Morrison’s given name Chloe Wofford. Verdelle explains:
“Toni Morrison had many names; I called her Miss Chloe. This was a moniker she seemed to appreciate and which, I realize, was unique. Calling her Miss Chloe was efficient: I could identify myself and greet her at once. As an address, as a phrase, “Miss Chloe” was cryptic, abbreviated, brief yet robust. I referred to her as Morrison, but I addressed her as Miss Chloe. To be able, and be allowed, to call her Miss Chloe was a privilege and was special and was inside. Ultimately, I could see that she liked being called the name she’d pointedly left behind. I’m not sure whether she applauded my nerve, but she answered seamlessly and pleasantly”(MC 123).
Morrison, an observant Catholic, chose Saint Anthony as her saint name at confirmation. She also chose the abbreviated form of Anthony as her name later in life. Morrison was the surname of her husband whom she divorced in 1964.
“Choosing a name is a gift and a grace, and a big responsibility. We know young Chloe turned Toni would have been fascinated by naming: perhaps she was already. Young Chloe also read prodigiously, so she had likely read all the biographies of all the saints she had to choose from. She may not yet have known that she was going to lean on what Saint Anthony’s nickname might have been had he lived in our time, before he was coronated saint. Young Chloe chose a saint who holds a book. Saint Anthony is also the patron saint of lost and stolen things. I daresay Chloe Anthony Morrison took her saint name seriously and used her genius and her life for uncovery. Reenvisioning our lost and stolen history. Finding our humanity in our pummeled past. Retrospective imaginary. Writing it all down”(MC 158).
A. J. was Angela Jones. She writes of how she was made fun of for having a white, plantation, surname which is part of why she changed her first name to the initials A. J. Her grandmother was named Jimmie Verdelle at birth. Jimmie was a teacher and encouraged A. J.’s education and so she took that name as her surname. Verdelle comments:
“I totally understand the pressure to name how you relate, and also how your chosen names can be derided by your era, your time, how other people (will) read you”(MC 261).
Naming is something that Morrison did with purpose and deliberateness in her novels as well. She wished to address the loss of identity that was a large part of the experience of the Middle Passage and enslavement. The loss of the right to name oneself, to call oneself by one’s own name. The enslaved were named by the people who had purchased them. In her novels, Morrison shows all the ways that this refused to hold, whereas the enslaved gave themselves nicknames which stuck. In the novel Beloved characters are named “StampPaid,” “Paul A.,” and “Paul D.,” “Baby Suggs” and “Beloved.”
Read our other pieces on Toni Morrison:
Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Woman Writer on Slavery and The Haunting that Persists.
Toni Morrison’s Sula: Available to and for her own Imagination—A Rare Kind of Freedom and a Black Woman Writer’s Manifesto
Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Women Writers on Writing
Memorials to the Victims of the Middle Passage: Listening to Woman Writer Toni Morrison
The Good Negress
Verdelle’s use of language is something to be noted and honored. In the book, Miss Chloe and in her book The Good Negress it shines. Even the storyline of The Good Negress is a nod to the power of language, the use of dialect and the tension between these two.
In Miss Chloe Verdelle describes The Good Negress:
“The novel is about the differences in how we raise boys and girls. The main character, Denise—who is a smart cookie, even though she has not been educated well—returns to Detroit from deep rural Virginia and tries to renegotiate a place for herself in her family. She does the same at school, and then she does the same when she finds she can get a job. Meanwhile her school teacher has decided to mentor her and doesn’t want Denise accepting the menial, rag-waving work she’s being offered. Her teacher wants her to be a teacher or a nurse. She wants to convince Denise to study rather than wipe and clean and sweep. The teacher pleads with Denise: “You are a smart girl. You can do more. Those people at the department store are just trying to make you a good little negress, and that does not have to be our lot anymore”(MC 105).
Once Verdelle finished her first novel, she sent it in draft form to many people for feedback. The draft got forwarded to Morrison who found it quite good and said so. This was not a common occurrence. Morrison also agreed to write a blurb for it. This was rare and unique.
I believe Verdelle’s writing is worthy of this blessing and anointing by Morrison.Verdelle’s sentence structure is unique, her vocabulary is off the charts and her portrayal of her characters is well rounded and captivating. One can see why Morrison liked The Good Negress. She probably saw something of herself in it.
A friendship began between Verdelle and Morrison. Morrison landed Verdelle a good agent which led to a good publisher and a teaching position at Princeton. She set her career going. A huge gift. But Verdelle retained her autonomy and independence. She allowed herself to have disagreements and make different choices than Morrison. She eventually left Princeton feeling that her time was better spent with a different student population. One she felt could use her help more. One less privileged.
The main character in The Good Negress, Denise, also loves reading. But her language needs improving, she is told by her teachers, as she emerges from the south into Detroit as a 12 year old girl in the 60s.
“I would go to the teacher wanting to know something almost every day after the school bell rang. “I wanna ax a question,” I’d begin, “bout Lake St. Clair.” I bothered Missus James when I said the ask.
“Ask,” Missus James would lean to me and say, “you want to ass-suh-kuh.”
Sound like a chair scraping the floor. “Ass-suh-kuh,” I tried, and lo and behold it came out right. Ass-suh-kuh, I had said. But like Granma’am usedta always say: Ignorance is a green switch; it’ll hurt you, and won’t break. Even though I practiced—ass-suh-kuh, ass-suh-kuh—when I tried to say it normal speed it came out aks, which is close to ax, which is where I started”(GN 42).
Denise is up against conflicting worldviews and demands. Her mother has called her back to Detroit to live with the family because she is pregnant and will need help with the new baby when it comes. In her time living under her grandmother’s tutelage in Virginia, Denise has become an accomplished cook. Once back in Detroit, she cooks complete, nourishing meals for the family—her two brothers, her mother’s new husband and her mother— and cleans the house to shiny every day.
She is very good at this and her mother wants her continue. But her teacher notices how intelligent Denise is and wants her to put her studies first. She begins teaching her privately after school.
Denise is torn by the polarized attitudes of these two powerful women in her life. She ends up doing both but eventually leaves home and goes to college. She chooses to elevate herself in position in her society by her education.
Meanwhile her brother, her favorite person, is languishing in poor options, poor choices and dangerous behavior. The book ends with Denise realizing she cannot save him. But she can save herself and maybe more people in the future by teaching them to read and write.
Mothers and daughters
Denise’s relationship with her mother, Margarete, is further conflicted and challenging because her mother left her with her grandmother in Virginia as a girl of seven. She left Denise and went back to Detroit to live with her two sons, Denise’s older brothers.
This felt like abandonment to Denise. She never does get back to calling Margarete “mom” or “mother.” She calls her Margarete. Later we learn that Margarete’s first husband, Denise’s father, died suddenly when Denise was young, leaving Margarete with three very young children and no money.
The decision to leave Denise there in Virginia when she was seven was one made from tough choices and hard thought decisions. But Denise never recovers from it. And when her mother calls her back only to take care of her new daughter, the resentment only increases.
After Denise has lived in Detroit for a while she decides to get a job one Christmas in order to be able to buy Christmas presents. She gets hired by a department store and is told she will be sorting and bagging buttons and pins and other sewing accessories. But when she reports for work, they tell her to begin each day by cleaning the bathrooms. Once she gets the job, Margarete tells her that it will be helpful if she will buy the Christmas turkey with the money she earns. Denise’s teacher, Missus Pearson, is angry when she finds out.
“Missus Pearson laid her pencil down in a diagonal across her teacher’s book and folded her hands like she intended to say something calmly. She did not. “You will never get over being colored. You have no business down to that store,” she said. The fault in her English was like a chasm in the ground. “They got you in there cleaning toilets, making you a good little negress, and your mother’s response is that you should buy the Christmas turkey.” Her face is pinched like a rodent’s nose. “Well this is certainly not what I intended for you, Denise. And I don’t think it is what your grandmother intended either. Your mother is very shortsighted about your future; I have told you that before.” She burrows. “You can be like her if you wish, but where you will find yourself when it’s over will be very close to where you are right now. Now, when you lift your hands and face and nose from the toilets, you come back to see me. Until then, you are excused.
. . .
If there was anything I could have said to erase what she had said to me, I would have. If I could have changed the subject, I would have. If I had not gone through the toilet door with my youth and pails and rags, that would have been better. But now I wave the flag of dark and colored, and she and I witness it together”(GN 210).
This echoes the paragraph in Miss Chloe with regard to Morrison’s relationship to Verdelle:
“All the years I was friends with Morrison, I felt her restraint. She did not want to “help me” with my writing. She did not want us viewed as “master and pupil.” She wanted me to deploy my own agency and recognize my own range and power. A big charge that takes big time to internalize.
All I learned from Morrison cannot be neatly packaged. She taught me straight-up lessons, but she also seeded my curiosity, and she created conditions for my orbit to expand. The people I met because of her, the things I know because of her . . . Morrison taught me, by modeling, that the artistic intellect is like a web: it finds and situates in high corners, is spun out of the way of approach, and it captures and holds whatever comes high and passes through. Whether you have a name for what you see or what you do matters little. Effort and devotion, focus and control—those are the matters that count”(MC 261).
In the end Miss Chloe is a beautiful homage to a writer that so many admire and adore, including A. J. Verdelle. Verdelle shows Morrison as a human woman who needed help handling her fame, the crowds, the questions, the onslaught, the attention. Morrison had the capacity to be stern or take someone down with one look. She was loving and supportive and held others to a high standards. She worked hard and deliberately and passionately to change the world for Black writers, the Black canon and Black people. And so she did.
Verdelle witnessed a person who has reached that stature handling it with grace, composure and generosity. She also graciously leaves Morrison with her privacy and private life. We get to see Morrison’s orbit, so many people extending far and wide. Verdelle occupied a space within that which was special but not too special. We are allowed to observe Verdelle holding boundaries around what she was willing to do for the superstar, which is a thing to admire.
A.J. Verdelle and Toni Morrison are Nasty Women Writers connected in the web.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Verdelle, A.J. Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison. HarperCollins, 2022.
________. The Good Negress. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2016. First published in 1995.