This month we read The Toni Morrison Book Club, a group memoir by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix-Williams. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science; and Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies.
Before reading this book, I already knew it was special. The cover was the first thing I noticed, its brilliant colors and gorgeous silhouette catching my eye. It is certainly different than what we’ve read for this club before, part group memoir and part something more magical. As a reader and admirer of Toni Morrison, I was very excited to dive into this. At first, I was a bit concerned about how all four authors would have their voices heard in the book, but the way it was structured was actually very compelling, and each person’s voice shone throughout. Each author got their own section that started out with a secret, a small introduction to their chapter that often featured the group’s memories of the writing process, which was really interesting to see. Through these secrets and the following chapters, I felt like I really got to know these authors, like they were sitting right beside me and telling me their stories. These authors shared some of their darkest times with me, and some of their best. I felt like and still feel like I know them, and that if I met them, we could just pick up our conversation. These stories were full of vulnerability and love, and I could feel the heartbreak and hope as it was spread across the pages. The way the authors’ memories and the words of Toni Morrison were woven together will stay with me for a long time. I have already recommended this book to many of my close friends, and it will definitely be sitting on my shelf among my favorites.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for nearly a year. By the time the book was actually in my hands I began to question myself. Could a book really live up to a yearlong anticipation period? Surprisingly, to me, this book surpassed this year of build-up. It’s shocking that such a small book, 196 pages, can be doing so many things. This book acts as memoir, literary criticism, and a continuation of conversations both old and new. As I read each of the authors’ sections, I felt as if I were beginning to make new friends. The secrets that are shared, the memories and emotions, allow you to begin to know each of the authors—glimpses into their lives, into the ways Toni Morrison speaks to each of them. There is an anticipation about the relevance of Morrison in each separate occasion of the authors’ journeys in life. No matter who you are or what stage of life you’re in, I truly believe you will take something from this book. I’m reading it now as a grad student and seeing reflections between this book and my studies on race. I’m making connections to theories and readings that I’d been struggling with. Already, I plan on rereading this book in the future.
When Morgan and Alexis discussed the book before writing this post, we decided that this is one of our top-tier books. It is a book we would place next to Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.
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.
Megan Brown is the author of American Autobiography after 9/11, published this week. She reflects in this post on contemporary examples of the performative aspect of confession and how we have come to expect that as an audience. Brown is an associate professor of English at Drake University, and her new book is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography.
I need to confess something here: I am an avid fan of the kinds of pop culture that many in my field readily disparage. Yes, I’ll crank up the car radio volume if “Bad Blood” comes on, and yes, I like to cackle about episodes of the various Bachelor franchises with my friends, and yes, I’ll probably keep doing these things even as Taylor Swift songs and reality television shows become more predictable and repetitive over the years. Indeed, the predictability and the repetition are the very things that I find not only appealing, but also fascinating. Some viewers and listeners might find the familiar tropes—insisting on being at the week’s rose ceremony for the “right reasons” or dissing unfaithful men in uptempo C major—comforting in an uncertain world, but I find them strange. They are shorthand, performative gestures toward confession that blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction by manipulating and satisfying audience expectations. As Michel Foucault reminds us, audience is central to the workings of confession—as he writes in The History of Sexuality, “one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession.” The confessor is expected and compelled to follow tropes of confessional narrative, and listeners will respond—often with credulity—according to the confessor’s level of fidelity to that narrative.
Let me explain further by turning first to Taylor Swift’s 1989, featuring the singles “Style,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and the aforementioned “Bad Blood.” As these songs and their videos became popular, writers in music magazines and on social media alike focused on one factor above all: the lyrics.Billboard dished on 1989’s references to Swift’s ex, Harry Styles of One Direction fame. The Washington Post offered an extended analysis of “Bad Blood,” using quotations and screenshots of fans’ Facebook posts and tweets to suggest that the song was intended as a takedown of Swift’s fellow pop diva, Katy Perry. Questions swirled as listeners tried to map the singles’ lyrics onto the singer’s life. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Swift—consider, for instance, the summer 2016 arguments about the “real” identity of Beyonce’s “Becky with the Good Hair.” Why, though, would anyone assume that song lyrics are autobiographical? Why would we assume that “Becky” is a real, identifiable person, and that Beyonce’s Lemonade is her account of struggles in her marriage to Jay Z? Can’t a popular performer sing from the point of view of a fictional persona, or write songs about fictional characters? In interviews, Swift coyly drops hints about life events that inspired her songs, but—more importantly, in my view—listeners assume autobiographical narrative in her lyrics because she performs “what confession sounds like” in contemporary memoir. Her songs come from a first-person perspective, and they signal authentic vulnerability by presenting a flawed narrator (the girl who “goes on too many dates but can’t make them stay,” as “Shake It Off” proclaims) with less-than-pretty emotions.
Think, too, about the confessional imperative—the idea that Swift “keeps it real” is central to her appeal. Firmly ensconced in celebrity culture, she is always expected to write about her love life, to keep the conversation and speculation going, even if the songs become formulaic. While her audience is not “requiring” the confessions in the way envisioned by Foucault, her continued relevance may well depend on meeting listener/viewer expectations for autobiographical narrative. Her songs, and the items about her in gossip columns, feed each other in a symbiotic relationship that may assure her career longevity. (Or, at least, assure her ongoing notoriety—it’s interesting that her controversial 2016 dispute with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West is again about “autobiographical” lyrics, this time in West’s “Famous.”)
If we turn to the example of reality TV, we can see how the performed confessional—again, the outward signs of authentic vulnerability—becomes crucial to contestants’ longevity or popularity on a show. Summer 2016 brought the twelfth installment of The Bachelorette, and the most recent Bachelor in early 2016 was the twentieth season of that series. In both of these iterations of
the reality franchise, the contestants receiving the most screen time spent much of that time confessing their feelings and telling stories about their pasts. Maybe these contestants were coached by show producers or by viewings of past seasons, but they seemed to know how to perform; one front-runner, Robby Hayes, was the first to tell the titular Bachelorette, JoJo Fletcher, that he loved her, and he led up to his confession of love by telling a dramatic part of his life story: “I came here [to be on The Bachelorette] because of huge changes I made in my life. Last year, on April 17, my best friend from growing up died. . . . It made me realize that if I’m not happy in the job I’m in, I’m not happy in the city I’m in, and if I’m constantly questioning the relationship I’m in, tomorrow might not be here.” This revelation, while potentially heartfelt, also worked as a strategy for Robby—JoJo later tells the cameras that Robby’s confessed feelings and experiences influenced her to keep him on the show and helped her trust him even when tabloids claimed he might have broken up with his previous girlfriend just so that he could appear on TV. The eventual winner of the season, Jordan Rodgers, similarly deployed autobiographical detail to win JoJo’s trust in the wake of controversial tabloid revelations. JoJo, and her viewing audience choosing to watch and commenting online, expected confessions and rewarded adherence to the well-worn tropes of autobiographical, confessional narrative.
Given the pop music and reality TV references in this post, a reader might be tempted to dismiss the observations here as trivial or irrelevant, but the performance of autobiographical conventions also affects, and can even shape, our politics. Just after summer 2016’s Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a “bounce” in her polling numbers, not just in terms of responses to her policy ideas, but also in terms of potential voters’ opinions on aspects of her character, such as being “in touch with the problems of normal Americans” and being “a president you could be proud of.” One reason for the post-Convention bounce? Former president Bill Clinton’s speech, which—as sources ranging from the New York Times to the Conservative Review commented—focused almost exclusively on “humanizing” the candidate via autobiographical stories about the Clintons’ relationship and family life. (This humanizing strategy was highly gendered, creating a portrait of self-proclaimed policy wonk Hillary Clinton as an emotional, even sexual, entity—a topic for another post.) Like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, and The Bachelorette’s many contestants over the years, Bill Clinton knew and used the power of the performative conventions of autobiographical narrative.