On Toni Morrison’s birthday, we share a guest post from Cassandra Jackson. She is an author of The Toni Morrison Book Club along with Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Uncle Bobbie’s will host the authors for a reading and signing tonight (2/18) at 7pm.
On June 25, 2018, I sent a group text to Piper, Winnie, and Juda: “My father needs to die. He is suffering and it is so terrible. If you pray, please ask for this part to end.”
I knew that my message had no business in a pop-up notification on a phone, that it would snatch my friends away from dinners, books, and children. Winnie would have to sit down, Juda would stand up, and Piper would cry. But it never occurred to me that I should not tell them what was happening in my world even though I was in Alabama and they were scattered along the line that divides Pennsylvania from New Jersey.
I had arrived in the South with my husband and children to visit my parents for a week. Over the course of those days, my father, who had lived with bone cancer for years, went from playing with his grandchildren to writhing in pain in his hospice bed. If I was to survive his transition from life to death, I needed the three of them to see me do it, to say it back to me, to let me know that the surreal was now real.
We call ourselves the Toni Morrison Book Club, but I am never sure if that name belies too much or too little of what we are. For those who have never been in a book club, the name just means people who talk about books. Those who have participated in a book club probably wonder at the deadly seriousness of one that focuses on a single author, and one of the most acclaimed and sophisticated at that. But our book club is probably not so different from theirs. We talk about human experience, gliding seamlessly between fictional characters and our lives.
As ordinary as it might sound, a book club where friends talk about books and themselves was a radical departure from the thing we had spent years learning to do. Three of us are scholars of literature and a fourth is a sociologist. We have been trained to cultivate scholarly distance and the veneer of objectivity. We say “the ways in which” rather than “how,” “meanings” rather than “the message,” and one of us (I won’t say who, but his name rhymes with Buddha) occasionally sprinkles a bit of French into everyday conversation. When our students judge characters, we remind them that characters are “constructions,” and we redirect them to think about what the character means rather than who the character is. If they tell us what the author meant to say, we tell them that the author (whether living or not) is dead because we do not have access to authors’ thoughts and even when we do, intentions are not art. In these ways, we do away with writers as people and thus kill off ourselves too.
When Juda knocked on my office door rambling and gesticulating about a book that would abandon all that, I thought, sure, why not. I have long been done with writing books of literary criticism that no one but a handful of specialists would read. But when he said the book would be about Toni Morrison, I said, “Have you lost your mind? Boy, if you don’t get away from my door—” But for him, Ms. Morrison’s work would make the perfect jumping-off point. Who more ideal for a book in which writers think about the relationship between literature and their own lives than the woman who, upon finding out that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, told a committee member, “If you’re going to keep giving prizes to women—and I hope you do—you’re going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes. I have to get a dress.” But after years of watching scholars argue over the meaning of Ms. Morrison’s work like she was the last cocktail at the Modern Language Association open bar, I had made a quiet pact with myself: Better to die of thirst than sit at that hot mess of a bar. I made Morrison my not-so-secret side-chick who I taught and loved on in class but refused to write about publicly.
In the end, Juda tricked me into it. You’ll have to read the book to find out how, but suffice it to say that he is one sneaky BFF, and I am forever grateful for his conniving.
We met, and talked, and wrote about Toni Morrison’s novels, ourselves, and the world. In one conversation over cupcakes and tears, we moved from Song of Solomon to the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist murdered by police, to Winnie’s son, who she had to warn to be careful, even though no amount of careful ever seems to be enough. Our fear and anger settled over Juda’s table like a thick fog until Juda spoke in a shaky voice, adding himself and Alton Sterling, also murdered by police, to the mix.
This is how our secret lives emerged—things that you think you can never talk about—your brother who hates black people, the gay boy you tried to turn, the white boys you hid from your mother, the tourist visa your family used to immigrate permanently to this country. We decided to center the book on this concept of secrets, the things that we had learned to say with each other’s help. And somewhere in the process, though I am not quite sure of the precise moment, we became something else—not simply friends or colleagues but something overlapping and converged—at once multiple and singular.
I cannot say precisely when we became the Toni Morrison Book Club. But for me, the signs of this merger coalesce around moments of shared grief. In 2017, I was cleaning my attic when my husband called to say that my brother—who was, as far as anyone knew, healthy—had died of a heart attack that morning. I made the necessary calls to my family, still unable to fully process his death. Then I texted TMBC to let them know that I couldn’t meet: “My brother died this morning. I have to go to Alabama. Not sure when I will be back.” They all wrote back immediately, their messages sounding like words one would direct to someone who has been shot. That’s when I realized that the words “Your brother died” had made me feel like I’d been shot—they had penetrated my body, cutting and burning before my mind could understand or accept what happened. I stared at my phone and to my surprise, I was no longer alone in the attic.
We never set out to be this to each other. It felt, instead, like we were just doing what Ms. Morrison would have wanted us to do, telling our own stories as if language was the only thing that could save us. So when we got word in the summer of 2019 that Ms. Morrison had read part of our manuscript and wanted to see more, we were thrilled and scared. Would she see the gift that she had given us? Would she understand that this book was our thank you? Or, would we be remembered as the four nitwits who needed to write a whole-ass book just to tick off the great Toni Morrison?
We would never find out what she thought of The Toni Morrison Book Club. On the morning of August 6, 2019, I sent the following text to TMBC: “Toni Morrison died last night.”
Cassandra Jackson is a professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of Violence, Visual Studies, and the Black Male Body and Barriers between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.