Born Angela Jones, Verdelle is a respected writer herself. Her 1995 novel, The Good Negress, a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist struggles with her own independence and her family responsibilities, won five national prizes. Verdelle introduces Morrison at the front of the book before delving into her own life as a curious Catholic school student in Washington, DC, capturing her tenure at Princeton University with Morrison, and evoking her long experience with racism. She then pivots to write about the nuances of literature, extensively weaving in Morrison’s insights and advice to writers.
Verdelle changed her name when she was 27 in honor of her grandmother Jimmy Verdelle, an English teacher, an early hint that literature always nurtured her soul. As a child, she read from her mother’s library, where she first encountered Toni Morrison — through the traces of her influence over Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land. As a young professor at Howard, Morrison had tutored Brown. Verdelle also read The Bluest Eye “too early really” and The Black Book, which Morrison captained through her editorship at Random House. The book chronicles Black history, incorporating proclamations by Frederick Douglass, pictures of cross burnings and lynchings, sheet music for work songs and freedom chants, and transcripts from fugitive slaves. “The Black Book confronted, forcing you to face a history that had been blacked out, brutally and deliberately erased by racist premeditation.”
Verdelle studied political science and statistics at the University of Chicago and worked as a statistician in the social sciences for many years, but her longing for the arts called her to Bard College to earn an MFA in 1993. That degree and reading incessantly and inquisitively helped shape her novel The Good Negress. It is “truly extraordinary,” Miss Chloe proclaimed, and the novel also caught the attention of the officials at the Bunting Institute, where Verdelle would hold a fellowship from 1996 to 1997.
Subsequently, Verdelle was invited to teach at Princeton and thus afforded an opportunity to “be around Morrison.” Who wouldn’t accept this position? But was “teaching well-heeled, well-endowed Americans […] with more money than [she would] ever see” a good use of Verdelle’s “Black American time on earth”? Maybe, but she, at times, questioned her position there. She wanted to motivate the unmotivated … the student with one chance, because socioeconomic inequality “is certainly one of our national trademarks.” She was impressed with some of the students she taught, such as Elisa Durrette, an African American from Omaha who solicited donations from her city’s CEOs to cover her hefty Princeton tuition bill. However, it was Morrison “wielding her magic intellectual machete, whacking down weeds in the thickets — with her writing as a cutting tool […] [with] the need to clear a path for the regular African American student” that kept Verdelle sane at Princeton.
The author recalls her life on the Ivy League campus: “Ours was a building with ginormous tall windows and broad staircases. The building was a former district school building. Halls wide as classrooms. Old and solid, the building was perpetually drenched in daylight.”
She and Morrison met in these hallways, hopped in Morrison’s dark green Jaguar, and drove to an Indian restaurant where they talked about their students, India, and politics. Threaded throughout the book are traces of such intimate conversations, and additional ones that occurred at Morrison’s big gray house on Nassau Street where the two women discussed craft, religion, and raising children. Morrison was not shy about giving her opinion on where Verdelle should give birth to her daughter — in New Orleans, where Verdelle owned a house, not in Princeton, the administration’s choice. Verdelle, with the support of Morrison, had her baby in the Crescent City. Morrison never cried in Verdelle’s company, but she came close discussing her youngest son Slade’s death in 2010.
Another major benefit of befriending Morrison was the number of celebrities the author attracted. Verdelle met Oprah when she visited the campus to film a Paradise book club segment. She talked with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes when the anchor was in town filming a Morrison feature. She attended an event with the great Gabriel García Márquez.
Verdelle writes poignantly about a defining moment that occurred during the school’s annual gathering, Reunions, in which alumni travel to campus and march through the streets in their bright-orange jackets. One year, she finally fixed her attention on the fact that there were very few graduates of color. The moment helped Verdelle decide that “the best use of [her] energy would be teaching Joneses, Johnsons, Smiths, Washingtons — brown students who knew gunshot […] and who needed to be taught about pathways and shown that pathways existed, or that channels for progress could be whacked open.”
The new pathway Verdelle selected for herself to follow took her to Morgan State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). However, in leaving the Ivy League, she was not abandoning Miss Chloe. Her mentor had begun her teaching career at another HBCU, Howard University, from which she had graduated.
Verdelle’s book is grounded in her honest writing about her childhood. She recalls playing in a segregated playground and her “experience in Catholic school was so so so so racist.” A major incident leading to her disenchantment with Catholic education happened when she was robbed of a first-place prize in a science fair; they gave two second-place prizes instead. “By adulthood, [her] interest in Catholicism had burned to a crisp.” Miss Chloe, on the other hand, “refused to be a victim. […] Rather than succumb to the distraction of responding to what others thought she, or we, could not be, Toni Morrison refused to race-splain.” She simply lived, and communicated through her characters, her lectures, and through The Black Book.
Much of this memoir is dedicated to discussions of craft as seen through Morrison’s eyes. Some discussions are technical, but, as a whole, these sections display Verdelle’s reverence for the Nobel laureate’s brilliance. She received her first lesson from Morrison in Boston during Miss Chloe’s Beloved tour. During the Q-and-A, an aspiring writer asked why she could not get the story “just right.” Morrison fired back, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” This toughness resonated with Verdelle, motivating her to adhere to Morrison’s strict edicts: focus on “Structure. Form. Convention. Drama. Precision. Characters. Insight.” Additionally, Verdelle divulges Morrison’s rules about research, “how it needed to be used only in ways that added to the humanity of the characters.” Verdelle also writes enthusiastically about Morrison’s love of choosing names: “Morrison made a project of naming. She handled character and place names with mystery and musicality and muscle.” Her readers are rewarded with the ensemble of Beloved, Booker, Cee Money, Chicken Little, Macon Dead, Milkman, and Sweetness. Morrison also bestowed her advice about the publishing world. She counseled Verdelle, whose book about Black cowboys is still in the pre-publishing vortex: “Never sell an unfinished book.” As usual, Verdelle ponders the advice: “[W]hen you sell an unfinished manuscript the publisher buys what they think they will get from your ten or twenty or fifty or even one hundred proposal pages; they buy what they imagine they will get from who they believe you are.” Morrison explained further “that a finished book is what it is. When editors get what you finish, the book might not match what they imagined. And then, where are you? What happens to the book that exists versus the book the acquisitions editor dreamed of?”
In Miss Chloe, Verdelle creates an echo chamber that deftly evokes the voice of Toni Morrison. She accomplishes her mission by masterfully writing about craft in one chapter, depicting an argument she had with Miss Chloe in another, and then circling back mellifluously to make a quotidian day on the Princeton University campus seem magical. As in any relationship, they had arguments, and Verdelle says it perfectly: “My relationship with Morrison lasted a third of my life and was not wholly intimate and not fully professional. Our relationship had its flares and embers, its low heat and occasional blaze.” The admiration and love Verdelle shows for her friend, who left us in 2019, is unquestionable, and Miss Chloe is an intimate and powerful tribute that Toni Morrison deserves.
Wayne Catan is a book critic whose work has appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, On the Seawall, The Hemingway Review, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Brooklyn Rail. He teaches English at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.