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A Question of Race: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

17 Feb 2017Literature Essays

Race usually provides an additional flavor to a story, but when different races are involved, authors sometimes resort to racial stereotyping. Toni Morrison introduces her two main characters without explicitly identifying which one is black, and which one is white in order to let the readers’ personal judgments and prejudices contribute to the interpretation of the story. The readers may discover something about their views about race in the process. It is also apparent that the author intends to show that the best way to discover the real person is to remove color, or any other superficial characteristics, from the judging criteria. In Morrison’s “Recitatif,” the story becomes similar to the musical term that it has been named after. A recitatif, or a recitative, is a “vocal music intermediate between speaking and singing” (Dictionary.com). “A reader may experience each of the five sections of the story as a ‘recitatif’ from an opera missing its other parts. The dialogue and narration foreground the plot. Readers must imagine the rest” (BlackNet Art). The story is like music, with the different time settings as its stanzas.

“Recitatif” tells the story of Twyla and Roberta, two girls who are both placed in a state institution called St. Bonaventure’s because their mothers can no longer take care of them. According to Twyla, her mother “dances all night”, while Roberta says that her own mother is “sick”. The references are also vague, just like the girls’ races. “Sick” may suggest mental illness or any other debilitating illness, and the “dancing all night” may also refer to insanity, or it can mean a job that will make Mary leave her daughter home alone every night. Whatever the reason, both girls understand that it is better not to elaborate.

Twyla is first uncomfortable about rooming with Roberta, who is a girl from another race. Roberta reciprocates the feeling. However, common experiences at St. Bonny’s have later made them allies (Morrison). The fact that Twyla and Roberta are still young at that time may make them more able to adjust to someone of a different color. Any of the misconceptions Twyla has had about Roberta’s race have been brought by comments from adults around her. Her mother has told her that those of Roberta’s race “never washed their hair” and “smelled funny.” The two girls’ first meeting does not go so well in terms of dispelling stereotypes because Roberta does smell funny according to Twyla.

One similarity that the girls have is their mothers. Each mother has a different problem and personality, but they are both unable to care for their girls so that they have to give them up to a shelter for mostly orphans. When the two visit on one Sunday, the reader is introduced to two different personas; Twyla’s mother, Mary is carefree and forgetful while Roberta’s mother is a religious fanatic who has “the biggest Bible ever made” according to Twyla (Morrison). When dealing with their mothers, Twyla and Roberta are just two girls, regardless of whether they are black, white, yellow or brown.

Twyla and Roberta understand that they are different from the other children at St. Bonny’s in terms of not being orphans. “We didn't like each other all that much at first, but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky”. (Morrison) This distinction has become another common ground and has helped in making them closer. They both have to endure bullying from the older girls, and both fail in their classes. The two girls also become curious about the mute kitchen woman named Maggie. Their stay at St. Bonny’s will not last forever, however. In May, Roberta leaves the institution to be with her mother.
When the two meet years later, the relationship has obviously changed. Twyla is working at the counter of a restaurant, assigned to a night shift. Roberta comes to the restaurant with two men “smothered in head and facial hair.” (Morrison) The meeting has made Twyla out of place as Roberta receives her coldly, with inside jokes saved for her two companions. This brief encounter is important because it provides some information that may seem like clues about the two women’s race to some readers.

“"We're on our way to the Coast. He's got an appointment with Hendrix."…
"Hendrix Fantastic," I said. "Really fantastic. What's she doing now?"
Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling."
Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He's only the biggest-Oh, wow. Forget it."” (Morrison)

The above dialogue presents a moment which highlights a discrepancy in perception. Their time apart has given them different experiences, perhaps with people of their own race. Therefore, it has become difficult for them to relate to the other on this particular meeting. Even the time period is merely implied; the men are wearing big hair and so is Roberta, who also dons skimpy clothing and big earrings. This may be a hint as to why Roberta knows Jimi Hendrix, not the Nona Hendryx whom Twyla is familiar with (BlackNet Art). The reader may come up with the women’s respective races through an investigation of the particular period. Nevertheless, the period itself is just suggested, and even if it were not, basing the race on the period and the musician that they know is regressing to what is being avoided: being stereotypical.

They meet three more times after. The encounter right after the Hendrix episode is friendlier but still full of racial tension. The two women converse about their married lives: Twyla lives a middle class life with her husband, child and extended family, while Roberta lives in an upper class neighborhood with her husband and four stepchildren. Roberta explains her behavior during their last encounter as what the time period calls for; whites and blacks are supposed to be segregated at that time. Twyla believes differently. Roberta also initiates the question of what has really happened to Maggie; she claims that Maggie’s fall has not been accidental. Twyla, on the other hand, cannot remember the older girls beating up Maggie. When they meet again, it is during a time of more racial strife when they are at opposite sides of desegregation busing. This is when Roberta gives a disturbing statement about Twyla’s involvement in Maggie’s supposed beating:

“Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you're not. You're the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot." (Morrison)

During their last meeting in the story, Twyla and Roberta talk about the Maggie incident calmly, but the memory remains unresolved. The two women are not sure about what has happened then. This may have been brought by trauma from the very incident for either or both of them. On one of their meetings, Roberta has admitted to some drug use, which may be a factor. Both of them may have blocked the memory. Twyla cannot even be sure of Maggie’s race. However, this may be explained by her previous reactions to race. She is not aware of any segregation during her meeting with Roberta and the two men. She also supports the integration effort by the busing system.

Whatever has really happened to Maggie, “Recitatif” is an exploration of the sensitive issue of race with the help of a metaphorical blindfold that the author has tied around the eyes of her readers. It is an effective study of the readers’ personal prejudices.

Works Cited

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