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Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story Addresses Race by Avoiding Race

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toni morrison recitatif analysis

By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

  • Jan. 28, 2022

RECITATIF A Story By Toni Morrison

It’s a term I invented, while watching the late, great Toni Morrison masterfully take down her critics: “The Morrisonian Moment.”

My favorite of these instances took place during a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, who verbally poked Morrison — at least, it appeared that way to me — with questions about race. Specifically, why did it annoy her so much when journalists asked, when would she stop writing about race, meaning, writing about Black culture and Black people?

And Morrison answered, “The person who asks that question doesn’t understand he is also raced.”

At this point, I always giggle. (Oh, I’ve watched this interview at least 10 times.) Not only did Charlie Rose seemingly misunderstand what “race” meant, he didn’t realize that he’d brought a knife to a gunfight. He’d thought himself capable of outwitting Toni Morrison, an African American woman who’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in a debate about Blackness and its profound creative relevance.

What I loved about Morrison’s response — besides her melodious, withering tone — was her historically informed argument that, although her critics might not understand how race works exactly, “white” has always been a racial category, just like “African American.” After all, white folks are the ones who invented the concept of race in the first place.

Morrison’s unflustered logic is what I love about “Recitatif,” her short story originally published in 1983 and now being released for the first time as a stand-alone book. “Recitatif” depicts an interracial friendship between two girls — one white, one Black — who meet in a shelter. They have different reasons for being there: Roberta’s mother is sick, while Twyla’s “likes to dance.” In the story, told from Twyla’s point of view, we encounter the girls over many years, but Morrison never identifies either’s race.

As she later explained in “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” “The only short story I have ever written, ‘Recitatif,’ was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” Absence is Morrison’s central point; once racial markers are stripped from the girls, each reader of “Recitatif” will experience the story in a purely subjective fashion.

This subjectivity appears in literary criticism as well. Some scholars insisted they’d cracked Morrison’s racial codes. In an essay called “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,” Elizabeth Abel points out what she thinks are clues to the girls’ races. Ann Rayson, in “Decoding for Race: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ and Being White, Teaching Black,” insists there are “obvious cues as to race.” However, when I went back to “Recitatif” some 25 years after my first read, it was clear that Morrison expertly used racial codes as a shell game: You never can find the prize. After a third and fourth read, I remain confused. Frankly, I like it that way.

When Morrison published “Recitatif” in 1983, it was nearly a revolutionary act to insist that white people had a race, too. Thus, her 20th-century readers probably wouldn’t have searched for signifiers of w hiteness, the “normative” identity. (Some might say it remains the norm.) Most readers would have searched for Blackness — its imagery, its music, its vernacular, its performance. Its static, American stereotypes.

Remember, though, that Morrison tells us in “Playing in the Dark” that race is still there in the story. We (her readers) just can’t identify it. Twyla and Roberta — two wounded, mostly unmothered girls, growing up with material and emotional uncertainties — are playing the racial hands they’ve been dealt. Yet because we don’t know who holds which hand, their social realities increasingly become more absurd.

There are no men in “Recitatif.” Thus, the power of white supremacy isn’t quite as obvious. This is a story about women, and it seems that Morrison asks us: “Are we really going to play this game invented by white men? Are we that weak-minded, that susceptible to a power we don’t truly — and won’t ever — possess?”

In preparation for writing this review, I immersed myself in rereading Morrison’s nonfiction, her ideas about what is still (unfortunately) called “writing about race.” I felt her outrage over the question that I’m still asked in this Year of Our Lord: “Why did you feel the need to write about Black people in your novel?” As if an African American writer deciding to creatively depict Black people — my own people — represents a wading through brackish, non-potable waters.

When I return to “Recitatif,” it is with a renewed understanding that, along with a handful of other African Americans, Morrison was among the first to depict Black culture while also considering politics, while also considering United States history, while also considering white supremacy, while also considering economic class, while also considering gender, while also considering intergenerational trauma.

As the kids might say, Toni Morrison did that.

And she did that decades ago, so it’s not her fault that we haven’t learned simultaneity, that we need a blunt hammer to break the American experience into tiny, sharp-edged pieces that we can touch — and maybe hold — only one at a time.

The fault is ours. The lack of understanding is ours — but within any lack, there exists possibility. And that is ours as well.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of the novel “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.”

RECITATIF A Story By Toni Morrison Introduction by Zadie Smith 96 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.

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Story Analysis: “Recitatif”

"Recitatif" was first published in the anthology Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka (1983). The story’s five-part structure explores the relationship of Twyla and Roberta , who first meet as 8-year old girls in an orphanage. Twyla and Roberta cannot rely on their mothers for help in understanding the world; their mothers leave them in an orphanage since they are unable to care for them. Instead, as Twyla and Roberta disappear and then reappear over and over again in each other's lives, they must learn to navigate their different experiences of race, class, and gender, transitioning from vulnerable, motherless girls, to becoming mothers themselves, caring for their own families and yet still trying to understand their own identities.

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Nobel laureates in literature.

Toni Morrison called her only short story ‘an experiment.’ But it’s no game

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By Toni Morrison Knopf: 96 pages, $16 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from , whose fees support independent bookstores.

I’m at a bit of a loss over how to write about Toni Morrison’s “ Recitatif .” The only short story ever written by the late Nobel laureate , who would have turned 91 this week, “Recitatif” was originally published in 1983 in “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women,” a collection edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. Now it’s been issued as a book of its own, with a typically insightful introduction by Zadie Smith .

“The fact that there is only one Morrison short story,” Smith writes, “seems of a piece with her oeuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces or ‘occasional essays,’ no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions.”

Morrison never writes without purpose. “ Toni Morrison does not play,” Smith observes. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.” The story is an extended attempt to write about race by, in the most fundamental sense, writing around race as a strategy not so much for making us complicit — Morrison understands that we are already complicit — as for provoking us to confront that complicity.

As for how she manages this, if you’ve read “Recitatif” — it has been discussed and taught since its initial appearance — you understand already. If not, discovery is a key reason we come to narrative. The turn here, the twist if you will, comes in how Morrison addresses (or doesn’t) the racial identities of her characters, the way she uses the story to show us our preconceptions, offering details that are by turns sharp and ambiguous. What she’s doing is not to implicate us so much as to lead us to implicate ourselves.

To experience “Recitatif” for the first time is to remember that books, at their best, teach us how to read them. The story is so simple yet at the same time so ingenious. We wonder: Is she really doing what I think she is? Then you realize: Yes, she is. In the spirit of that fresh approach, I won’t be more specific about the experiment. In fact, I might suggest you read Morrison’s story first and Smith’s introduction afterward. The pieces are very much in conversation with each other. Equally important, both seek to be in conversation with us.

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Do I need to say that this is a form of generosity? But, of course, that’s what literature — what Morrison — offers: an angle of engagement with the world. Consider how she frames “Recitatif,” as if we were already in the middle of things. “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick,” the story opens. “That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.”

The narrator is an 8-year-old named Twyla, although she is also, we will learn, the adult looking back. She and Roberta meet as roommates at a New York orphans shelter. One is Black and one is white, “like salt and pepper standing there.” Even as they form a society of two, Twyla recognizes that theirs is a relationship of convenience. “We didn’t like each other all that much at first,” she confides, “but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped.”

"Recitatif," by Toni Morrison

What strikes you first is the language, the way Morrison makes it do so much. That riff about the beautiful dead, which repeats more than once, clearly represents the 8-year-old’s perspective. Yet underneath its surface we intuit the older Twyla peeking through. Parents in the sky — it’s the kind of euphemistic deflection offered by adults such as “the Big Bozo,” as the orphans call their overseer. Twyla, though, is too smart for that. When her neglectful mother comes to visit, she is flush with glee.

“I was feeling proud,” she tells us, “because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out. A pretty mother on earth is better than a beautiful dead one in the sky even if she did leave you all alone to go dancing.”

A similar double vision recurs throughout “Recitatif,” which moves from St. Bonny’s to a highway Howard Johnson’s , where Twyla and Roberta reencounter each other, and later to the Hudson Valley community of Newburgh , where both settle as adults. The location is hardly coincidental: “Geography, in America, is fundamental to racial codes ,” Smith asserts. “[A]nd by the time Morrison wrote ‘Recitatif,’ Newburgh was a depressed town, hit by ‘white flight,’ riven with poverty and the violence that attends poverty.”

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It’s a perfect place, in other words, for the pair of reckonings that bring the story to fruition: the first about busing (Twyla and Roberta are on opposing sides of the issue) and the second involving an incident from St. Bonny’s, in which a mute woman named Maggie — “She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen” — fell while walking to the bus. “We should have helped her up,” Twyla admits, but instead she and Roberta mocked her. “And it shames me even now,” Twyla continues, “to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and couldn’t tell on us.”

It is with Maggie that Morrison’s purpose reveals itself. That first description of the incident is a throwaway; it is forgotten, or set aside, as soon as it is over. And yet, as Faulkner wrote, the past is never past, which means the incident must fester for Twyla and Roberta both. Was Maggie Black or white? The two have different recollections. Their memories shift each time they come up. Did she fall or was she pushed? Did Twyla and Roberta participate in the aggression? Does it matter if they meant to cause her pain? “[W]anting to is doing it,” Roberta says during their final encounter. Even as the story ends, the truth remains beyond their reach.

It would be enough if this was where Morrison had chosen to leave us, in the slipstream of her characters’ subjectivity. It is so if you think so, to borrow a phrase from Luigi Pirandello : the notion that narrative, or identity, must be conditional, a reflection of the observer more than the observed. Morrison, however, doesn’t stop there; throughout “Recitatif,” she turns that conditionality back on us.

“A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say,” Twyla remembers. “Two little girls who knew what nobody else in the world knew — how not to ask questions. How to believe what had to be believed.” She and Roberta are all this and more. What’s essential, though, is that the way the characters flow in and out of one another requires us to confront something about ourselves. What are your preconceptions? Morrison demands. What do you take for granted in the world? And what if you are wrong? Not about everything, necessarily, but about the most important thing?

What does it mean not to know?

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Ulin is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

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toni morrison recitatif analysis

The Genius of Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story

In the extraordinary “Recitatif,” Morrison withholds crucial details of racial identity, making the reader the subject of her experiment.

Illustration by Diana Ejaita

I n 1980 Toni Morrison sat down to write her one and only short story, “Recitatif.” The fact that there is only one Morrison short story seems of a piece with her œuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces, no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions. It’s hard to overstate how unusual this is. Most writers work, at least partially, in the dark: subconsciously, stumblingly, progressing chaotically, sometimes taking shortcuts, often reaching dead ends. Morrison was never like that. Perhaps the weight of responsibility she felt herself to be under did not allow for it. To read the startlingly detailed auto-critiques of her own novels in that last book, “ The Source of Self-Regard ,” was to observe a literary lab technician reverse engineering an experiment. And it is this mixture of poetic form and scientific method in Morrison that is, to my mind, unique. Certainly it makes any exercise in close reading of her work intensely rewarding, for you can feel fairly certain—page by page, line by line—that nothing has been left to chance, least of all the originating intention. With “Recitatif” she was explicit. This extraordinary story was specifically intended as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” 1

T he characters in question are Twyla and Roberta, two poor girls, eight years old and wards of the state, who spend four months together in St. Bonaventure shelter. The very first thing we learn about them, from Twyla, is this: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” A little later, they were placed together, in Room 406, “stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race.” What we never learn definitively—no matter how closely we read—is which of these girls is black and which white. We will assume, we can insist, but we can’t be sure. And this despite the fact that we get to see them grow up, becoming adults who occasionally run into each other. We eavesdrop when they speak, examine their clothes, hear of their husbands, their jobs, their children, their lives. . . . The crucial detail is withheld. A puzzle of a story, then—a game. Only, Toni Morrison does not play. When she called “Recitatif” an “experiment,” she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.

B ut before we go any further into the ingenious design of this philosophical 2 brainteaser, the title itself is worth a good, long look:

Recitatif, recitative | ˌrɛsɪtəˈtiːv | noun [mass noun] 1. Musical declamation of the kind usual in the narrative and dialogue parts of opera and oratorio, sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech with many words on the same note: singing in recitative . 2. The tone or rhythm peculiar to any language. Obs.

The music of Morrison begins in “ordinary speech.” Her ear was acute, and rescuing African American speech patterns from the debasements of the American mainstream is a defining feature of her early work. In this story, though, the challenge of capturing “ordinary speech” has been deliberately complicated. For many words are here to be “sung . . . on the same note.” That is, we will hear the words of Twyla and the words of Roberta, and, although they are perfectly differentiated the one from the other, we will not be able to differentiate them in the one way we really want to . An experiment easy to imagine but difficult to execute. In order to make it work, you’d need to write in such a way that every phrase precisely straddled the line between characteristically “black” and “white” American speech, and that’s a high-wire act in an eagle-eyed country, ever alert to racial codes, adept at categorization, in which most people feel they can spot a black or white speaker with their eyes closed, precisely because of the tone and rhythm “peculiar to” their language. . . .

And, beyond language, in a racialized system, all manner of things will read as “peculiar to” one kind of person or another. The food a character eats, the music they like, where they live, how they work. Black things, white things. Things that are peculiar to our people and peculiar to theirs. But one of the questions of “Recitatif” is precisely what that phrase “peculiar to” really signifies. For we tend to use it variously, not realizing that we do. It can mean:

That which characterizes That which belongs exclusively to That which is an essential quality of

These three are not the same. The first suggests a tendency; the second implies some form of ownership; the third speaks of essences and therefore of immutable natural laws. In “Recitatif” these differences prove crucial, as we will see.

M uch of the mesmerizing power of “Recitatif” lies in that first definition of “peculiar to”: that which characterizes . As readers, we urgently want to characterize the various characteristics on display. But how? My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick . Well, now, what kind of mother tends to dance all night? A black one or a white one? And whose mother is more likely to be sick? Is Roberta a blacker name than Twyla? Or vice versa? And what about voice? Twyla narrates the story in the first person, and so we may have the commonsense feeling that she must be the black girl, for her author is black. But it doesn’t take much interrogating of this “must” to realize that it rests on rather shallow, autobiographical ideas of authorship that would seem wholly unworthy of the complex experiment that has been set before us. Besides, Morrison was never a poor child in a state institution—she grew up solidly working class in integrated Lorain, Ohio—and autobiography was never a very strong element of her work. Her imagination was capacious. No, autobiography will not get us very far here. So, we listen a little more closely to Twyla:

And Mary, that’s my mother, she was right. Every now and then she would stop dancing long enough to tell me something important and one of the things she said was that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean. So when the Big Bozo (nobody ever called her Mrs. Itkin, just like nobody ever said St. Bonaventure)—when she said, “Twyla, this is Roberta. Roberta, this is Twyla. Make each other welcome,” I said, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here.”

The game is afoot. Morrison bypasses any detail that might imply an essential quality of , slyly evades whatever would belong exclusively to one girl or the other, and makes us sit instead in this uncomfortable, double-dealing world of that which characterizes , in which Twyla seems to move in a moment from black to white to black again, depending on the nature of your perception. Like that dress on the Internet no one could ever agree on the color of . . .

W hen reading “Recitatif” with students, there is a moment when the class grows uncomfortable at their own eagerness to settle the question, maybe because most attempts to answer it tend to reveal more about the reader than the character. 3

For example: Twyla loves the food at St. Bonaventure, and Roberta hates it. (The food is Spam, Salisbury steak, Jell-O with fruit cocktail in it.) Is Twyla black? Twyla’s mother’s idea of supper is “popcorn and a can of Yoo-hoo.” Is Twyla white?

Twyla’s mother looks like this:

She had on those green slacks I hated. . . . And that fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. . . . [But] she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.

Roberta’s mother looks like this:

She was big. Bigger than any man and on her chest was the biggest cross I’d ever seen. I swear it was six inches long each way. And in the crook of her arm was the biggest Bible ever made.

Does that help? We might think the puzzle is solved when both mothers come to visit their daughters one Sunday and Roberta’s mother refuses to shake Twyla’s mother’s hand. But a moment later, upon reflection, it will strike us that a pious, upstanding, sickly black mother might be just as unlikely to shake the hand of an immoral, fast-living, trashy, dancing white mother as vice versa. . . . Complicating matters further, Twyla and Roberta—despite their crucial differences—seem to share the same low status within the confines of St. Bonaventure. Or at least that’s how Twyla sees it:

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. We were dumped. Even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us.

At this point, many readers will start getting a little desperate to put back in precisely what Morrison has deliberately removed. You start combing the fine print:

We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher.

Which version of educational failure is more black? Which kind of poor people eat so poorly—or are so grateful to eat bad food? Poor black folk or poor white folk? Both?

As a reader you know there’s something unseemly in these kinds of inquiries, but old habits die hard. You need to know. So you try another angle. You get granular.

  • Twyla’s mother brings no food for her daughter on that Sunday outing
  • Cries out “Twyla, baby!” when she spots her in the chapel
  • Smells of Lady Esther dusting powder
  • Doesn’t wear a hat in a house of God
  • Calls Roberta’s mum “that bitch!” and “twitched and crossed and uncrossed her legs all through service.”

Meanwhile, Roberta’s mother brings plenty of food—which Roberta refuses—but says not a word to anyone, although she does read aloud to Roberta from the Bible. There’s a lot of readable difference there, and Twyla certainly notices it all:

Things are not right. The wrong food is always with the wrong people. Maybe that’s why I got into waitress work later—to match up the right people with the right food.

She seems jealous. But can vectors of longing, resentment, or desire tell us who’s who? Is Twyla a black girl jealous of a white mother who brought more food? Or a white girl resentful of a black mother who thinks she’s too godly to shake hands?

C hildren are curious about justice. Sometimes they are shocked by their encounters with its opposite. They say to themselves: Things are not right . But children also experiment with injustice, with cruelty. To stress-test the structure of the adult world. To find out exactly what its rules are. (The fact that questions of justice seem an inconvenient line of speculation for so many adults cannot go unnoticed by children.) And it is when reflecting upon a moment of childish cruelty that Twyla begins to describe a different binary altogether. Not the familiar one that divides black and white, but the one between those who live within the system—whatever their position may be within it—and those who are cast far outside of it. The unspeakable. The outcast. The forgotten. The nobody. Because there is a person in St. Bonaventure whose position is lower than either Twyla’s or Roberta’s—far lower. Her name is Maggie:

The kitchen woman with legs like parentheses. . . . Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She was old and sandy-colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked.

Maggie has no characteristic language. She has no language at all. Once she fell over in the school orchard and the older girls laughed and Twyla and Roberta did nothing. She is not a person you can do things for: she is only an object of ridicule. “She wore this really stupid little hat—a kid’s hat with earflaps—and she wasn’t much taller than we were.” In the social system of St. Bonaventure, Maggie stands outside all hierarchies. She’s one to whom anything can be said. One to whom anything might be done. Like a slave. Which is what it means to be nobody. Twyla and Roberta, noticing this, take a childish interest in what it means to be nobody:

“But what about if somebody tries to kill her?” I used to wonder about that. “Or what if she wants to cry. Can she cry?” “Sure,” Roberta said. “But just tears. No sounds come out.” “She can’t scream?” “Nope. Nothing.” “Can she hear?” “I guess.” “Let’s call her,” I said. And we did. “Dummy! Dummy!” She never turned her head. “Bow legs! Bow legs!” Nothing. She just rocked on, the chin straps of her baby-boy hat swaying from side to side. I think we were wrong. I think she could hear and didn’t let on. And it shames me even now to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and couldn’t tell on us.

T ime leaps forward. Roberta leaves St. Bonny’s first, and a few months after so does Twyla. The girls grow into women. Years later, Twyla is waitressing at an upstate Howard Johnson’s, when who should walk in but Roberta, just in time to give us some more racial cues to debate. 4

These days Roberta’s hair is “so big and wild” that Twyla can barely see her face. She’s wearing a halter and hot pants and sitting between two hirsute guys with big hair and beards. She seems to be on drugs. Now, Roberta and friends are going to see Hendrix, and would any other artist have worked quite so well for Morrison’s purpose? Hendrix’s hair is big and wild. Is his music black or white? Your call. Either way, Twyla—her own hair “shapeless in a net”—has never heard of him, and, when she says she lives in Newburgh, Roberta laughs.

G eography, in America, is fundamental to racial codes, and Newburgh—sixty miles north of Manhattan—is an archetypal racialized American city. Founded in 1709, it is where Washington announced the cessation of hostilities with Britain and therefore the beginning of America as a nation, and in the nineteenth century was a grand and booming town, with a growing black middle class. The Second World War manufacturing boom brought waves of African American migrants to Newburgh, eager to escape the racial terrorism of the South, looking for low-wage work, but with the end of the war the work dried up; factory jobs were relocated south or abroad, and, by the time Morrison wrote “Recitatif,” Newburgh was a depressed town, hit by “white flight,” riven with poverty and the violence that attends poverty, and with large sections of its once beautiful waterfront bulldozed in the name of “urban renewal.” Twyla is married to a Newburgh man from an old Newburgh family, whose race the reader is invited to decipher (“James and his father talk about fishing and baseball and I can see them all together on the Hudson in a raggedy skiff”) but who is certainly one of the millions of twentieth-century Americans who watched once thriving towns mismanaged and abandoned by the federal government: “Half the population of Newburgh is on welfare now, but to my husband’s family it was still some upstate paradise of a time long past.” And then, when the town is on its knees, and the great houses empty and abandoned, and downtown a wasteland of empty shop fronts and aimless kids on the corner—the new money moves in. The old houses get done up. A Food Emporium opens. And it’s in this Emporium—twelve years after their last run-in—that the women meet again, but this time all is transformation. Roberta’s cleaned up her act and married a rich man:

Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich. I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.

For the reader determined to solve the puzzle—the reader who believes the puzzle can be solved, or must be solved—this is surely Exhibit No. 1. Everything hangs on that word “they.” To whom is it pointing? Uppity black people? Entitled white people? Rich people, whatever their color? Gentrifiers? You choose.

N ot too long ago, I happened to be in Annandale myself, standing in the post-office line, staring absently at the list of national holidays fixed to the wall, and reflecting that the only uncontested date on the American calendar is New Year’s Day. With Twyla and Roberta, it’s the same—every element of their shared past is contested:

“Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was.” But I didn’t know. I thought it was just the opposite. . . . You got to see everything at Howard Johnson’s and blacks were very friendly with whites in those days.

Their most contested site is Maggie. Maggie is their Columbus Day, their Thanksgiving. What the hell happened to Maggie? At the beginning of “Recitatif,” we are informed that sandy-colored Maggie “fell” down. Later, Roberta insists she was knocked down, by the older girls—an event Twyla does not remember. Later still, Roberta claims that Maggie was black and that Twyla pushed her down, which sparks an epistemological crisis in Twyla, who does not remember Maggie being black, never mind pushing her. (“I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. Would I?”) Then Roberta claims they both pushed and kicked “a black lady who couldn’t even scream.” It’s interesting to note that this escalation of claims happens at a moment of national “racial strife,” in the form of school busing. Both Roberta’s and Twyla’s children are being sent far across town. And as black—or white—mothers, the two find themselves in rigid positions, on either side of a literal boundary: a protest line. Their shared past starts to fray and then morph under the weight of a mutual anger; even the tiniest things are reinterpreted. They used to like doing each other’s hair, as kids. Now Twyla rejects this commonality ( I hated your hands in my hair ) and Roberta rejects any possibility of alliance with Twyla, in favor of the group identity of the other mothers who feel about busing as she does. 5

The personal connection they once made can hardly be expected to withstand a situation in which once again race proves socially determinant, and in one of the most vulnerable sites any of us have: the education of our children. Mutual suspicion blooms. Why should I trust this person? What are they trying to take from me? My culture? My community? My schools? My neighborhood? My life? Positions get entrenched. Nothing can be shared. Twyla and Roberta start carrying increasingly extreme signs at competing protests. (Twyla: “My signs got crazier each day.”) A hundred and forty characters or fewer: that’s about as much as you can fit on a homemade sign. Both women find that ad hominem attacks work best. You could say the two are never as far apart as at this moment of “racial strife.” You could also say they are in lockstep, for without the self-definition offered by the binary they appear meaningless, even to themselves. (“Actually my sign didn’t make sense without Roberta’s.”)

A s Twyla and Roberta discover, it’s hard to admit a shared humanity with your neighbor if they will not come with you to reëxamine a shared history. Such reëxaminations I sometimes hear described as “resentment politics,” as if telling a history in full could only be the product of a personal resentment, rather than a necessary act performed in the service of curiosity, interest, understanding (of both self and community), and justice itself. But some people sure do take it personal. I couldn’t help but smile to read of an ex-newspaper editor from my country, who, when speaking of his discomfort at recent efforts to reveal the slave history behind many of our great country houses, complained, “I think comfort does matter. I know people say, ‘Oh, we must be uncomfortable.’ . . . Why should I pay a hundred quid a year, or whatever, to be told what a shit I am?” Imagine thinking of history this way! As a thing personally directed at you . As a series of events structured to make you feel one way or another, rather than the precondition of all our lives?

The long, bloody, tangled encounter between the European peoples and the African continent is our history. Our shared history. It’s what happened. It’s not the moral equivalent of a football game where your “side” wins or loses. To give an account of an old English country house that includes not only the provenance of the beautiful paintings but also the provenance of the money that bought them—who suffered and died making that money, how, and why—is history told in full and should surely be of interest to everybody, black or white or neither. And I admit I do begin to feel resentment—actually, something closer to fury—when I realize that merely speaking such facts aloud is so discomfiting to some that they’d rather deny the facts themselves. For the sake of peaceful relations. To better forget about it. To better move on. Many people have this instinct. Twyla and Roberta also want to forget and move on. They want to blame it on the “gar girls” (a pun on gargoyles, “gar girls” is Twyla and Roberta’s nickname for the older residents of St. Bonaventure), or on each other, or on faulty memory itself. Maggie was black. Maggie was white. They hurt Maggie. You did . But, by the end of “Recitatif,” they are both ready to at least try to discuss “what the hell happened to Maggie.” Not for the shallow motive of transhistorical blame, much less to induce personal comfort or discomfort, but rather in the service of truth. We know that their exploration of the question will be painful, messy, and very likely never perfectly settled. But we also know that a good-faith attempt is better than its opposite. Which would be to go on pretending, as Twyla puts it, that “everything was hunky-dory.”

D ifficult to “move on” from any site of suffering if that suffering goes unacknowledged and undescribed. Citizens from Belfast and Belgrade know this, and Berlin and Banjul. (And that’s just the “B”s.) In the privacy of our domestic arguments we know this. We must be heard. It’s human to want to be heard. We are nobody if not heard. I suffered. They suffered. My people suffered! My people continue to suffer! Some take the narrowest possible view of this category of “my people”: they mean only their immediate family. For others, the cry widens out to encompass a city, a nation, a faith group, a perceived racial category, a diaspora. But, whatever your personal allegiances, when you deliberately turn from any human suffering you make what should be a porous border between “your people” and the rest of humanity into something rigid and deadly. You ask not to be bothered by the history of nobodies, the suffering of nobodies. (Or the suffering of somebodies, if hierarchical reversal is your jam.) But surely the very least we can do is listen to what was done to a person—or is still being done. It is the very least we owe the dead, and the suffering. People suffered to build this house, to found that bank, or your country. Maggie suffered at St. Bonaventure. And all we have to do is hear about that? How can we resent it? 6

It takes Twyla some time to see past her resentment at being offered a new version of a past she thought she knew. (“Roberta had messed up my past somehow with that business about Maggie. I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. Would I?”) But, in her forced reconsideration of a shared history, she comes to a deeper realization about her own motives:

I didn’t kick her; I didn’t join in with the gar girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to. We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help. Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. . . . And when the gar girls pushed her down, and started roughhousing, I knew she wouldn’t scream, couldn’t—just like me and I was glad about that.

A few pages later, Roberta spontaneously comes to a similar conclusion (although she is now unsure as to whether or not Maggie was, indeed, black). I find the above one of the most stunning paragraphs in all of Morrison’s work. The psychological subtlety of it. The mix of projection, vicarious action, self-justification, sadistic pleasure, and personal trauma that she identifies as a motivating force within Twyla, and that, by extrapolation, she prompts us to recognize in ourselves.

L ike Twyla, Morrison wants us ashamed of how we treat the powerless, even if we, too, feel powerless. And one of the ethical complexities of “Recitatif” is the uncomfortable fact that even as Twyla and Roberta fight to assert their own identities—the fact that they are both “somebody”—they simultaneously cast others into the role of nobodies. The “fags who wanted company” in the chapel are nobodies to them, and they are so repelled by and fixated upon Maggie’s disability that they see nothing else about her. But there is somebody in all these people, after all. There is somebody in all of us. This fact is our shared experience, our shared category: the human. Which acknowledgment is often misused or only half used, employed as a form of sentimental or aesthetic contemplation, i.e., Oh, though we seem so unalike, how alike we all are under our skins . . . . But, historically, this acknowledgment of the human—our inescapable shared category—has also played a role in the work of freedom riders, abolitionists, anticolonialists, trade unionists, queer activists, suffragettes, and in the thoughts of the likes of Frantz Fanon , Malcolm X, Stuart Hall , Paul Gilroy, Morrison herself. If it is a humanism, it is a radical one, which struggles toward solidarity in alterity, the possibility and promise of unity across difference. When applied to racial matters, it recognizes that, although the category of race is both experientially and structurally “real,” it yet has no ultimate or essential reality in and of itself. 7

B ut, of course, ultimate reality is not where any of us live. For hundreds of years, we have lived in deliberately racialized human structures—that is to say, socially pervasive and sometimes legally binding fictions—that prove incapable of stating difference and equality simultaneously. And it is extremely galling to hear that you have suffered for a fiction, or indeed profited from one. It has been fascinating to watch the recent panicked response to the interrogation of whiteness, the terror at the dismantling of a false racial category that for centuries united the rich man born and raised in Belarus, say, with the poor woman born and raised in Wales, under the shared banner of racial superiority. But panic is not entirely absent on the other side of the binary. If race is a construct, what will happen to blackness? Can the categories of black music and black literature survive? What would the phrase “black joy” signify? How can we throw out this dirty bathwater of racism when for centuries we have pressed the baby of race so close to our hearts, and made—even accounting for all the horror—so many beautiful things with it?

T oni Morrison loved the culture and community of the African diaspora in America, even—especially—those elements that were forged as response and defense against the dehumanizing violence of slavery, the political humiliations of Reconstruction, the brutal segregation and state terrorism of Jim Crow, and the many civil-rights successes and neoliberal disappointments that have followed. Out of this history she made a literature, a shelf of books that—for as long as they are read—will serve to remind America that its story about itself was always partial and self-deceiving. And here, for many people, we reach an impasse: a dead end. If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain. She could parse the difference between the deadness of a determining category and the richness of a lived experience. And there are some clues in this story, I think. Some hints at alternative ways of conceptualizing difference without either erasing or codifying it. Surprising civic values, fresh philosophical principles. Not only categorization and visibility but also privacy and kindness:

Now we were behaving like sisters separated for much too long. Those four short months were nothing in time. Maybe it was the thing itself. Just being there, together. Two little girls who knew what nobody else in the world knew—how not to ask questions. How to believe what had to be believed. There was politeness in that reluctance and generosity as well. Is your mother sick too? No, she dances all night. Oh—and an understanding nod.

That people live and die within a specific history—within deeply embedded cultural, racial, and class codes—is a reality that cannot be denied, and often a beautiful one. It’s what creates difference. But there are ways to deal with that difference that are expansive and comprehending, rather than narrow and diagnostic. Instead of only ticking boxes on doctors’ forms—pathologizing difference—we might also take a compassionate and discreet interest in it. We don’t always have to judge difference or categorize it or criminalize it. We don’t have to take it personally. We can also just let it be. Or we can, like Morrison, be profoundly interested in it:

The struggle was for writing that was indisputably black. I don’t yet know quite what that is, but neither that nor the attempts to disqualify an effort to find out keeps me from trying to pursue it. My choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate coconspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture. 8

Visibility and privacy, communication and silence, intimacy and encounter are all expressed here. Readers who see only their own exclusion in this paragraph may need to mentally perform, in their own minds, the experiment that “Recitatif” performs in fiction: the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial . To perform this experiment in a literary space, I will choose, for my other character, another Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. I am looking at his poems. I am looking in. To fully comprehend Heaney’s œuvre, I would have to be wholly embedded in the codes of Northern Irish culture; I am not. No more than I am wholly embedded in the African American culture out of which and toward which Morrison writes. I am not a perfect co-conspirator of either writer. I had to Google to find out what “Lady Esther dusting powder” is, in “Recitatif,” and, when Heaney mentions hoarding “fresh berries in the byre,” no image comes to my mind. 9

As a reader of these two embedded writers, both profoundly interested in their own communities, I can only be a thrilled observer, always partially included, by that great shared category, the human, but also simultaneously on the outside looking in, enriched by that which is new or alien to me, especially when it has not been diluted or falsely presented to flatter my ignorance—that dreaded “explanatory fabric.” Instead, they both keep me rigorous company on the page, not begging for my comprehension but always open to the possibility of it, for no writer would break a silence if they did not want someone—some always unknowable someone—to overhear. I am describing a model reader-writer relationship. But, as “Recitatif” suggests, the same values expressed here might also prove useful to us in our roles as citizens, allies, friends.

R ace, for many, is a determining brand, simply one side of a rigid binary. Blackness, as Morrison conceived of it, was a shared history, an experience, a culture, a language. A complexity, a wealth. To believe in blackness solely as a negative binary in a prejudicial racialized structure, and to further believe that this binary is and will forever be the essential, eternal, and primary organizing category of human life, is a pessimist’s right but an activist’s indulgence. Meanwhile, there is work to be done. And what is the purpose of all this work if our positions within prejudicial, racialized structures are permanent, essential, unchangeable—as rigid as the rules of gravity?

The forces of capital, meanwhile, are pragmatic: capital does not bother itself with essentialisms. It transforms nobodies into somebodies—and vice versa—depending on where labor is needed and profit can be made. The Irish became somebodies when indentured labor had to be formally differentiated from slavery, to justify the latter category. In Britain, we only decided that there was something inside women—or enough of a something to be able to vote with—in the early twentieth century. British women went from being essentially angels of the house—whose essential nature was considered to be domestic—to nodes in a system whose essential nature was to work, just like men, although we were welcome to pump milk in the office basement if we really had to. . . . Yes, capital is adaptive, pragmatic. It is always looking for new markets, new sites of economic vulnerability, of potential exploitation—new Maggies. New human beings whose essential nature is to be nobody. We claim to know this even as we simultaneously misremember or elide the many Maggies in our own lives. These days, Roberta—or Twyla—might march for women’s rights, all the while wearing a four-dollar T-shirt, a product of the enforced labor of Uyghur women on the other side of the world. Twyla—or Roberta—could go door to door, registering voters, while sporting long nails freshly painted by a trafficked young girl. Roberta—or Twyla—may practice “self-care” by going to the hairdresser to get extensions shorn from another, poorer woman’s head. Far beneath the “black-white” racial strife of America, there persists a global underclass of Maggies, unseen and unconsidered within the parochial American conversation, the wretched of the earth. . . .

O ur racial codes are “peculiar to” us, but what do we really mean by that? In “Recitatif,” that which would characterize Twyla and Roberta as black or white is the consequence of history, of shared experience, and what shared histories inevitably produce: culture, community, identity. What belongs exclusively to them is their subjective experience of these same categories in which they have lived. Some of these experiences will have been nourishing, joyful, and beautiful, many others prejudicial, exploitative, and punitive. No one can take a person’s subjective experiences from them. No one should try. Whether Twyla or Roberta is the somebody who has lived within the category of “white” we cannot be sure, but Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences. Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain Zip Code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time. White may be the most powerful category in the racial hierarchy, but, if you’re an eight-year-old girl in a state institution with a delinquent mother and no money, it sure doesn’t feel that way. Black may be the lower caste, but, if you marry an I.B.M. guy and have two servants and a driver, you are—at the very least—in a new position in relation to the least powerful people in your society. And vice versa. Life is complex, conceptually dominated by binaries but never wholly contained by them. Morrison is the great master of American complexity, and “Recitatif,” in my view, sits alongside “ Bartleby, the Scrivener ” and “ The Lottery ” as a perfect—and perfectly American—tale, one every American child should read.

Finally, what is essentially black or white about Twyla and Roberta I believe we bring to “Recitatif” ourselves, within a system of signs over which too many humans have collectively labored for hundreds of years now. It began in the racialized system of capitalism we call slavery; it was preserved in law long after slavery ended, and continues to assert itself, to sometimes lethal effect, in social, economic, educational, and judicial systems all over the world. But as a category the fact remains that it has no objective reality: it is not, like gravity, a principle of the earth. By removing it from the story, Morrison reveals both the speciousness of “black-white” as our primary human categorization and its dehumanizing effect on human life. But she also lovingly demonstrates how much meaning we were able to find—and continue to find—in our beloved categories. The peculiar way our people make this or that dish, the peculiar music we play at a cookout or a funeral, the peculiar way we use nouns or adjectives, the peculiar way we walk or dance or paint or write—these things are dear to us. Especially if they are denigrated by others, we will tend to hold them close. We feel they define us. And this form of self-regard, for Morrison, was the road back to the human—the insistence that you are somebody although the structures you have lived within have categorized you as “nobody.” A direct descendant of slaves, Morrison writes in a way that recognizes first—and primarily—the somebody within black people, the black human having been, historically, the ultimate example of the dehumanized subject: the one transformed, by capital, from subject to object. But in this lifelong project, as the critic Jesse McCarthy has pointed out, we are invited to see a foundation for all social-justice movements: “The battle over the meaning of black humanity has always been central to both [Toni Morrison’s] fiction and essays—and not just for the sake of black people but to further what we hope all of humanity can become.” 10

We hope all of humanity will reject the project of dehumanization. We hope for a literature—and a society!—that recognizes the somebody in everybody. This despite the fact that, in America’s zero-sum game of racialized capitalism, this form of humanism has been abandoned as an apolitical quantity, toothless, an inanity to repeat, perhaps, on “Sesame Street” (“Everybody’s somebody!”) but considered too naïve and insufficient a basis for radical change. 11

I have written a lot in this essay about prejudicial structures. But I’ve spoken vaguely of them, metaphorically, as a lot of people do these days. In an address to Howard University, in 1995, Morrison got specific. She broke it down, in her scientific way. It is a very useful summary, to be cut out and kept for future reference, for if we hope to dismantle oppressive structures it will surely help to examine how they are built:

Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this:
  • Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion.
  • Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy.
  • Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works.
  • Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification.
  • Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy.
  • Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process.
  • Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.
  • Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children.
  • Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press, a little pseudo-success, the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence.
  • Maintain, at all costs, silence. 12

Elements of this fascist playbook can be seen in the European encounter with Africa, between the West and the East, between the rich and the poor, between the Germans and the Jews, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the British and the Irish, the Serbs and the Croats. It is one of our continual human possibilities. Racism is a kind of fascism, perhaps the most pernicious and long-lasting. But it is still a man-made structure. The capacity for fascisms of one kind or another is something else we all share—you might call it our most depressing collective identity. (And, if we are currently engaged in trying to effect change, it could be worthwhile—as an act of ethical spring-cleaning—to check through Toni’s list and insure that we are not employing any of the playbook of fascism in our own work.) Fascism labors to create the category of the “nobody,” the scapegoat, the sufferer. Morrison repudiated that category as it has applied to black people over centuries, and in doing so strengthened the category of the “somebody” for all of us, whether black or white or neither. Othering whoever has othered us, in reverse, is no liberation—as cathartic as it may feel. 13

Liberation is liberation: the recognition of somebody in everybody. 14

S till, like most readers of “Recitatif,” I found it impossible not to hunger to know who the other was, Twyla or Roberta. Oh, I urgently wanted to have it straightened out. Wanted to sympathize warmly in one sure place, turn cold in the other. To feel for the somebody and dismiss the nobody. But this is precisely what Morrison deliberately and methodically will not allow me to do . It’s worth asking ourselves why. “Recitatif” reminds me that it is not essentially black or white to be poor, oppressed, lesser than, exploited, ignored. The answer to “What the hell happened to Maggie?” is not written in the stars, or in the blood, or in the genes, or forever predetermined by history. Whatever was done to Maggie was done by people. People like Twyla and Roberta. People like you and me.

This essay is drawn from the introduction to “ Recitatif: A Story ,” by Toni Morrison, out this February from Knopf.

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Read our detailed notes below on the short story Recitatif by Toni Morrison. Our notes cover Recitatif summary, themes, characters, and literary analysis.

Recitatif Summary

The short story opens when Twyla declares that she and Roberta are in the Orphanage of St. Bonny because Roberts’s mother was ill, and Twyla’s mother had danced all night. When the story opens, the two of them do not appear to have to save viewpoints. Mary taught Twyla to have biased views of the people of Roberta’s race. When Twyla tells this to the woman in charge of the orphanage Big Bozo, she dismisses her rudely.

The two girls get along when they realize that they can apprehend each other without asking questions. They also get along because they all the time get Fs. Twyla is unable to remember anything she learns, and Roberta has not learned to read.  Both of them are excluded from the rest of the children of the orphanage because they are not a real orphanage. That is why they also get along. 

The older girls of the orphanage sometimes tease Roberta and Twyla. These girls wear make and appear to be scary and vulnerable. The older girls often hang out and listen to the radio and dance in the orchard. Twyla often sees the orchard in her dream; however, nothing really happened there except that Maggie, an old sandy color woman, fell down there. Maggie works in the kitchen and is suffering from multiple disabilities. She is deaf and perhaps mute.

Roberta’s mother and Mary come to attend the church on one Sunday. They lunch at the orphanage. Roberta and Twyla were happy. They wear nice dresses and curl the hair of each other. When Roberta introduces her mother to Mary and Twyla, her mother simply walks away. Twyla gets embarrassed when her mother does not bring food. She wishes to kill her.

The story then shifts eight years ahead in time. Twyla has been working on the Thruway at Howard Johnson’s. One day Greyhound Bus stops at the dinner, and Roberta is among the passengers. She is accompanied by two young men and wearing an outfit and makeup that made her look like a nun.

Twyla and Roberta have a short and casual conversation. However, Roberta appears to be disinterested and rude. Roberta also taunts her when Twyla discloses that she does not know Jimi Hendrix. Roberta is about to leave without saying goodbye that Twyla asks her about her mother. Roberts tells her that she is fine and formally asks about Mary and then leaves.

The narrative of the story then shifts to twelve years ahead in time. Twyla has married James, who lives in Newburg with his family. They have given birth to a son Joseph. Regardless of high poverty, Newburg is redeveloping. A gourmet market has been opened in the city. Twyla, out of curiosity, visits the shop. However, she is anxious to buy anything. She finally decides to buy Klondike bars as her son and father-in-law love them.

Twyla encounters Roberta at the checkout. Roberts is elegant dresses and tells her that she lives in the wealthy suburb of Annandale with her husband and four stepchildren. Roberta offers to have a coffee. The two women behave like sisters at the coffee shop. They were laughing, giggling, and tightly holding each other. They also recall their time at St. Bonny orphanage. Roberta also shows off that she has last learned to read.

Twyla talks about Maggie, and Roberta reveals that she did not fall but was pushed by the gar girls. Twyla does not believe what she says. However, Roberta discloses that she knows about it because she went back to St. Bonny orphanage twice, and the second time she ran away.

Twyla then talks about Roberta’s rude behavior at Howard Johnson’s. Roberta tells her that her behavior was because of the ongoing racial tension at that time. The two inquire about each other’s mother and promise to keep in touch and then leave.

Twyla then explains that that year the Newburgh faced “racial strife” because of the force integration by means of busing. One day, Twyla accidentally crosses the protest that she saw Roberta, who holds a placard reading “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!” Twyla feels compelled to drive back and meet Roberta. The two women talk about protest and then start backbiting. 

Ultimately some women in the protest rock the car of Twyla. Twyla asks for Roberta’s hand by reaching out to her hand; however, Roberta does not move to help.

When all the women clear the area, Roberta observes that he has changed and is a completely different person; however, Twyla has not changed —“the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground.” Surprised at this, Twyla says that Maggie was not a black lady. Roberta asserts that she was black, and they kicked her. 

Both of them call each other liars, and Twyla comes to join the counter-protest. She holds a series of placards that are directly addressed to Roberta. The last placard reads as “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL.” Seeing this sign, Roberta leaves the protest. Twyla also leaves and does not choose to come back.

Time passes. Christmas has arrived. Joseph is not admitted to the college. Twyla chooses to stop and buy a coffee after buying a Christmas tree. She observes a group of wealthy people near dinner. She admits that she made herself try to look at them. Twyla goes inside and finds Roberta. Roberta wants to speak to her. Twyla, even though she resists, finally agrees to talk.

The woman talks about small things before Roberta tells her that she has to say something. Roberta claims that she thought Maggie was black and knew that she and Twyla did not kick her at all. They both just watched the gar girls kicking her. Roberta also admits that she wants the gar girls to kick her, and that is bad.

Twyla comforts her when Roberta starts crying. Twyla suspects Roberta is upset and drunk. She tries to comfort her by reminding her that they are eight years old lonely children. Robert appears to have better feelings. Twyla inquires about Roberta’s mother. Roberta tells her that her mother never got a mother. Twyla also says that Mary never stops dancing. Suddenly Roberta again is overwhelmed with despair and exclaims, “ Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?”

Background of the Story

Historical context.

The short story “Recitatif” is set in three different time periods. All of these time periods saw shifts in culture and racial tensions in the United States. The first part of the story took place in the 1950s when Twyla and Roberta were eighteen years old. It was the time when the Civil Rights Movement began, and Jim Crow segregation was in full swing. 

The Supreme Court issued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which outlawed the segregation of school. In 1957, “Little Rock Nine,” a famous school enrolled nine African-American students. The schools faced a severe protest by the white segregationists, and to be able to set foot in their school, they required the intervention of President Eisenhower.

The second stage of the story is set in the 1960s. During that time, Twyla and Roberta are young adults. In 1964, the Civil Rights Movements were passed. Following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Black Power Movement also was in full momentum.

There was also a huge cultural shift in the 1960s. There was a rise of an uncontrollable youthful counter-culture that broadly reject the progressive politics, conservative social norms, and clasp of a “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.” Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic rock guitarist, was a key figure in this movement. In the story, Roberta is on her way to meet Jimi Hendrix.

The decade of the 1970s appears to have more improved race relationships. However, the black communities still suffered from incarcerations and high rates of poverty. Their conditions worsened during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ha was elected in 1981.

Even though the short story was written when the Reagan era has started, it also alludes to the social issues that got intensified during his presidency. The short story points out the increased discrepancy between the lives of the poor and the rich. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Brown vs. Board of Education also saw an increase in the usage of busing as a means to force the racial integration of schools.

Literary Context

The short story “Recitatif” was published during the time when in the global culture, there was an increasing acceptance and celebration of the literature of African-Americans. Several other key movements of the twentieth century, like that of the Harlem Renaissance, preceded the movement. The central literary figures of these movements include Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes.

Writers such as James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Richard Wright also deal with the themes of segregation and racism in the 1940s and 1950s. Therefore, they create a sense of the cultural moment that leads to the Civil Rights Movement in 196s.

The period was followed by the Black Arts Movement, which was the cultural and key factor of the Black Power Movement. This movement was started by Imani Amiri Baraka. He, along with his wife Amina, edited the volume Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women . “Recitatif” was first published in this volume.

The Black Art Movement deals with those aesthetic principles that were not included in the white Western tradition. They also intend to liberate the black writers and artists from white dependency and institutions such as publishing houses and universities. Writers who were the leading figures of the movement were Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovani.

Even though Toni Morrison is not part of the Black Arts Movement, she is generally associated with it, and her works are placed in the African-American tradition. Toni Morrison worked on the texts of Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, the African-American writers. Alce Walker published the novel The Color Purple one year before Toni Morrison published “Recitatif.” The Color Purple turned out to be the widely read novel in the literary tradition of African-Americans.

The title of the story is the French word for “recitative.” The word refers to the passages (speech-like) of opera in which the storyline or plot is moved forward.

Characters Analysis

She is the narrator of “Recitatif.” She is the main character of the story, along with Roberta. When the story opens, she is eight years old. She has been brought to St. Bonny’s Orphanage because her mother dances all night. Mary has abandoned her daughter and taught her biases towards the people of Roberts’s race. The race of both of the characters remains ambiguous throughout the story.

Even though over the course of Twyla’s friendship with Roberta, the racial prejudices appear to diminish, they resurface when two meet after a long time as adults. Though Twyla could not perform well at school, she is better than Roberta as she can read. At St. Bonny’s, Twyla is afraid of girls as the pick on her and Roberta. She is affectionate towards Roberta and curious about Maggie.

When her mother, Mary, comes to visit her at an orphanage, she has strange emotions as she is excited to see her but simultaneously ashamed at her behavior. In her late teens, Twyla started working at Howard Johnson. She becomes more responsible and weary. She marries a man whom she describes as wonderful to Roberta and privately calls him as comfortable as a house slipper.”

Twyla appears to be alarmed by the incursion of wealth and development in Newburg. She is anxious and stressed because of her financial conditions. She also appears to be upset with the “racial strife” that starts at Newburg due to bussing, even though she does not have any personal opinion about the matter.

When Roberta claims that both of them kicked Maggie, she feels resentful. However, at the end of the story, she realizes that her anger and helplessness towards her mother ignites her desire to kick Maggie.

Besides Twyla, Roberta is another main character of the story. Roberta is the roommate of Twyla at St, Bonny’s orphanage. Both of the girls are eight years old. One of the girls in white, and while the other is black, however, it is ambiguous which race belongs to which race. Roberta’s mother is such; that is why she is unable to look after her. At the end of the story, Roberta reveals that her mother was in an institution that claims her illness to be mental rather than physical.

Even though Roberta appears to be raised up in a less neglectful way than Twyla, she is unable to read. Roberta leaves St. Bonny before Twyla; however, she returns back to it twice, and for the second time, she runs away.

In the second part of the story, when the story is shifted eight-year ahead in time, Roberta and Twyla meet at Howards Johnson’s. Roberta has to wear a glamorous and sexy outfit with lots of makeup. Two men are accompanying her, and they are heading to meet Hendrix. In this part of the story, Roberta appears to be part of the 1960’s rebellious youth culture. She taunts Twyla for not knowing Hendrix. She also embraced the self-indulgent command of “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.”

In the final section of the story, Roberta has undergone a transformation. She has married a rich man when Twyla meets her at the gourmet market. She is associated with luxury. However, she also becomes a passionate opponent of forced integration. The personality of Roberta appears to be less stable than that of Twyla. She also has insecurity about her identity. However, it is also suggested that Roberta is more self-centered than serious and responsible Twyla. That is why the readers are surprised to see that she cared about Maggie’s and is obsessed with her fate.

In the short story “Recitatif”, Maggie is a minor character; however, she takes the central and mysterious significance in the story. She has been referred to as the “kitchen woman” by the children at St. Bonny orphanage. She is old bow-legged and “sandy-colored.” Maggie is unable to talk, and some children claim that her tongue was cut. However, Twyla assumes that she is deaf as well. 

She, along with Roberta, tries to test her listening ability by calling her “Dummy1″ and Bow Legs,” to which she does not react. However, Twyla is certain that she can listen to them and is guilty about it.

Due to her helplessness and vulnerability, children at St. Bunny feel angry towards her. However, she later realizes the similarity between the unusual way of Maggie’s walk and her mother dancing all night. Roberta and Twyla also want to hurt Maggie because she resembles and represents their mothers and their vulnerability.

Maggie has become a point of contention between Roberta and Twyla when Roberta asserts that they also, along with other girls, Kicked Maggie at the orchard. Roberta also asserts that Maggie is black. However, Twyla does not agree with it. Later, Roberta confesses that they did not kick her with other girls, but they want to kick her.

The racial ambiguity of Maggie in the story mirrors the complicated relationship of a woman with race. They resist being identified as oppressive and bigoted while at the same time, they want to distance themselves from the pitiful and helpless existence of Maggie.

She is the woman in charge of St. Bonny. The real name of Big Bozo is Mrs. Itkin. Her official title is not mentioned in the story. She assigns Roberta and Twyla to be roommates. When Twyla objects that her mother would disdain this, she rudely dismisses her. The children at the orphanage appear to dislike Big Bozo. Twyla notices that the only time she smiles was when Twyla’s mother and Roberta’s mother come to visit them.

Roberta, after twenty years when she meets Twyla at the gourmet market, discloses that Big Bozo was a friend when the gar girls kicked Maggie at the orchard. Twyla also raised a placard at the protest that those mothers who protest against integration are “Bozos.” Roberta replies to this that they are not. Big Bozo represents harsh and loveless authoritarianism that is endured by the children as for not being raised by their own parents. The story also suggests that some parents can be more unpleasant.

Marry is the mother of Twyla. She is introduced at the beginning of the story when Twyla describes her arrival at St. Bonny because her mother danced all night. Throughout the story, Twyla uses this simple phrase to explain why Mary is unable to take care of her. However, the true meaning of this phrase is ambiguous. She could be suffering from any disease, or she could be a sex worker. That is why she does not want to have any child.

The name of Mary is ironic. She is completely opposite to the self-sacrificing and morally perfect figure. Instead is a careless mother who abandoned Twyla. Twyla mentions that her mother’s idea of super was a can of Yoo-Hoo and popcorn. Whenever she comes to meet Twyla, she jiggles throughout the church service.

Instead of calling her mother “Mom” or something like that, Twyla calls her by first name “Mary.” This indicates a skewed nature of the relationship between the two. Even at the age of eight, Twyla appears to be more responsible than her mother.

Twyla has mixed feelings about her mother. She is excited when she comes to meet her. However, she is also embarrassed at the same time because of the weird and crazy behavior of her mother. At the end of the story, Twyla repeats the phrase that even though she has become a mother, Mary has not stopped dancing.

Roberta’s Mother

The real name of Roberta’s mother is never mentioned in the story. Moreover, the detail about the character is also not clearly mentioned. Roberta describes her as sick. However, her illness is not mentioned. It is unclear whether she is suffering from mental illness or physical. Twyla describes her as bigger than any man when she comes to meet Roberta. She is wearing a cross and carrying the Bible. Roberta’s mother, unlike Mary, is serious and religious. At the end of the story, Roberts discloses that her mother was raised in an “institution,” which claims that her illness is mental rather than physical.

The Gar Girls

At the beginning of the story, Twyla and Robert are picked on by some older teenage girls. Both of them called these girls as gar girls based on the misunderstanding of Roberta of the “gargoyles.” The gar girls listen to the radio and dance in the orchard. They wear makeup and smoke cigarettes. Roberta and Twyla are afraid of them and think of them as touchy and mean. 

However, Twyla notices that they are scared runaways who have fought off their uncles. They are the paradox of vulnerability and toughness. They represent how children who faced abuse and neglect are considered threatening. They also kick Maggie in the orchard, thereby representing an abuse that Roberta and Twyla are trying to escape from.

Joseph Benson

He is the only son of Twyla and James. He does not mind being bused or integrated into another school. He prefers to study at home while the schools are closed and watch TV. He hangs the placard of Twyla in his room reading, “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?”

Friendship vs. Family

The short story “Recitatif” is an account of the two girls’ friendship, Roberta and Twyla. They meet in the orphanage or shelter St. Bunny’s. There are lots of parallels between the two girls, which creates a sense that they are twins. They are of the same age; their mothers are alive but could not take care of them. 

This fact is emphasized when they have the same fashion sense; for example, they curl each other’s hair when their mothers come to meet them. Moreover, Twyla also says that they both are behaving like sisters meeting after twenty years living in St. Bonny together.

 However, the notion that Roberta and Twyla are sisters is disrupted by the fact that they both belong to different races. Even though Toni Morison deliberately makes it unclear that which girl belongs to which race, it is clear that both of them do not belong to the same race. Twyla also mentions that other children at St. Bonny calls them “salt and pepper.” This illustrates their difference yet conjunction as a single unit.

The family relationship of both Roberta and Twyla is out of reach, which shows their desperate desire to have a family. Their relationship is counterfeit against the setting of a symbolic ‘family” at St, Bonny that is made up of children that have no parents along with the socially expelled figures like Maggie.

Even though the children at St. Bonny are linked as family, they are also haunted by the absence of their own family. Moreover, Roberta and Twyla are excluded from the family at St. Bonny because they are not real orphans.

Even though, as adult women, both of them have their own families, these families are not talked about in detail in the story. Therefore, the story suggests that symbolic families and familial relationships are more significant and meaningful than real families. 

Twyla and Roberta conveyed their undecided feeling about their motherhood in a confusion that surrounds protest. Even as an adult woman, Twyla depends upon Roberta for her sense of identity, which is the strong evidence of her familial nature of their friendship.

Keeping aside the familial implications of their relationship, the friendship of Robert and Twyla is also intensely charged. When the story opens, they have different opinions and are enemies because of racial prejudice. Even though they have become very close to each other, when they meet at Howards Johnson’s, their friendship is plagued with alienation, resentment, and misunderstanding.

All of the issues are because of social class differences. Roberta appears to have a glamorous and exciting life, while Twyla is working as a waitress at a restaurant. Even though the ladies are closer to each other than any other at some points in the story, their class and racial difference come in their way, and they are not able to overcome them.

Outcasts, Outsiders and the Unwanted

The initial setting of the short story “Recitatif” inside an orphanage /shelter launches a theme of alienation and social exclusion that is carried throughout the story. In the shelter, the children brought to be raised whose parents are dead or cannot take care of them. Twyla says that she and her friend Roberta were “dumped” and alienated because their mother is alive and are not real orphans. Thereby, Roberta and Twyla face double exclusion: from society and also from the institution of social outcasts.

The older girls at St. Bonny’s are described as the scared runaway of pit out girls who fight off their uncle. However, these girls would threaten Twyla and Roberta. Over here, Toni Morison points towards the fact that how abandoned or excluded members of the society are regarded as “tough” and threatening. However, they are extremely weak and sensitive.

However, at St. Bonny, children are not only the outcasts. An old lady who is disabled and works in the kitchen is arguably more outcast and unwanted than children. The children bully her, and she cannot respond because she is mute and perhaps dead. She has a significantly most central role in the story when Roberta and Twyla fight over her. Roberta claims that along with other girls, they also kick her. However, Twyla refuses this.

Even though Roberts changes her opinion, she remains obsessed with the fate of Maggie. Roberta was not only a child at St. Bonny; she belongs to the category who are socially excluded and vulnerable. She still can feel complicit and guilty at Maggie’s exclusion from society.

The story mainly deals with the theme of social exclusion. It demonstrates race and segregation. Robert and Twyla are having the opposite opinion about busing or integration of school when they are adults. Even though Roberta’s protest is mainly because her children are sent to other schools out of the neighborhood, she is indirectly supporting segregation.

Sickness and Disability

The primary theme of the short story “Recitatif” is a disability. Even though Maggie’s is the main disabled character in the story, she appears to be the background character of the story. However, at the end of the story, she becomes a central character. Maggie appears to be more vulnerable than the children at the shelter. She has a mysterious character, and everyone has a different perspective on her.

Some children claim that her tongue has been cut, while Twyla supposes that she is deaf. They try to test her listening ability by calling her with rude names. Though she does not respond, her reaction cannot be concluded with certainty. Twyla is guilty and ashamed that Maggie could possibly listen to her. Because of her subjectivity, interior emotions, disability, and vulnerability, Maggie is not considered as human.

Moreover, the children at the shelter/orphanage also blame Maggie for her vulnerability and defenselessness. For them, the sight of someone miserable and vulnerable makes them inflict more pain on them. This is the consequence of the Children’s own expulsion and suffering at the hand of society. They express their feelings of helplessness and rejection by inflicting suffering and pain on someone inferior to them.

However, Maggie is not the only vulnerable or disabled character in the story. Twyla, as a narrator, asserts in the very first sentence of the story that they are brought to St. Bonny because her mother Mary danced all night, and Roberta’s mother is sick. Because of the mental/physical sickness of Roberta’s mother, she is unable to take care of her. This sickness is paralleled with Mary’s obsession with dancing all night and is shown as a kind of disability that prevents her from taking care of her daughter.

The way Maggie walks makes Twyla compare her with her mother. This suggests that there is something about the way they move, which is socially not acceptable or inappropriate. This idea is a racialized concept as in American history, and black is demonized for dancing or any other kind of movement that is linked with black culture. 

Childhood vs. Adulthood

The central topic that the story deals with is childhood and adulthood. Half of the narrative is set at the shelter where Twyla and Roberta spend their childhood while the other half the story is set when they are adults. The children are living in a world in which Maggie, an old woman, is presented as a child because of her dressing and helplessness.

However, the children are forced to live responsible lives and act as grown-up because of the absence of their parents. They grow up more mature and responsible than the children of their age. This can be seen in the behavior of gar girls who wear makeup and intimidate young children.

Twyla and Roberta are made to behave like grown-up adults because their mother cannot take care of them and fails to perform their role. Twyla’s mother was unable to be mature enough to take care of herself. Twyla associates her with youth culture. These facts demonstrate the idea that childhood and adulthood are not something concrete or could be measured with age. They are not the absolute opposite. However, they are in moving states and depend on the different ways and situations in the lives of people.

Race and Prejudice

Like most of the works of Toni Morrison, the short story “Recitatif: also deals with racial identity, prejudice, and community. Toni Morison deliberately kept the races of the three main characters in the story. The readers are certain that Twyla and Roberta belong to two different races: black and white; however, it is uncertain who belongs to which race.

Moreover, Maggie is described as sandy-colored, while Twyla asserts that Maggie is not black. The vagueness of the racial identity of Maggie is the main element that makes her mysterious and significant. This ambiguity shows that race is a largely social construction and arbitrary. These are practiced in real life because these prejudices and racial concepts originate in the minds of people.

Twyla and Roberta disagree over the race of Maggie after 20 years when they live together in the shelter, even though both of them had a strong awareness of race and racism when they were children. Moreover, St. Bonny’s is an institute where all types of races exist; even then, the children face racial discrimination and are at their forefronts.

Morrison offers contradictory clues about Twyla and Roberta’s race that, most of the time, confuses the readers. Through this, the readers illuminate their own prejudices and assumptions about race.

Toni Morison shows Twyla and Roberta’s clash over the integration of schools as a vague scene. This fact reveals her amazing skill as a writer. The two women show the socio-economic gulf between them. Roberta lives in a place where executives and doctors are her neighbors while Twyla lives in a poor neighborhood in Newburgh. However, these facts do not reveal anything about the races of these women.

Twyla and Roberta argue and fight over the issue of busing and integration. It is ambiguous what their final opinion about racial integration is. Moreover, the race is not made obvious through their support or opposition for the integration as Roberta mainly protests because her children are being abused at different schools out of her neighborhood.

The arbitrariness of the racial identity is emphasized when Twyla and Roberta assert that “I wonder what made me think you were different.” Apparently, the assortment sounds like racial prejudice as both women appear to have negative views about each other’s race. However, the thought that the other is “different” is not advocated by anyone.

The sense of racial ambiguity and the fact that both women say this sentence in succession points out towards another contradictory meaning. Considering the sentence out of context, it can be taken as a gesture of racial reconciliation. In reality, we are the same, but I don’t know what made you think that we are different. 

As the differences between the two women are racial and significant, it also deals with arbitrary economic and social circumstances. Even though racism and discrimination is the real part of the world in which live, everyone regardless of assumption and stereotype should be given even opportunities and values as other people.

Literary Analysis

Between 1955 and 1968, a movement named as the African-American Civil Rights movement reigned in the United States. The main agenda of the movement was to illegalize the racial discrimination and sufferings of African-Americans. Like any other powerful movement, the movement initiates collective changes in American society both mentally and physically. In any public accommodation, discrimination based on race, religion, and nation was banned. 

One can say that African-Americans have gained significant freedom. For American-Americans, doubleness became more attractive, and they started reviving and analyzing it more broadly. For example, W.E.B. Bois suggested a concept of double consciousness. He describes this concept as being caught in “self-conception” as an American and as a person of African origin. 

“Recitatif” was published in 1983 by Toni Morison. It is an account of two childhood friends. The one among them is black while the other is white. The lives of the main characters of the story intersect over the course of many years. The main and significant point about the short story is Toni Morison never mentions which gild belongs to which race. She deliberately does so and intends to reveal the tendency of humans to categorize people instantly.

Morison overlaps the version of different characters about the same and shared history and shows what happens when two people’s memories of the same event bump against each other. When Twyla and Roberta discover that both of them have different memories about the same event, Twyla asserts that “I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. Would I?”

Twyla’s uncertainty points towards the instability and insecurity of memory. Du Bois asserts that “ always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

In the short story “Recitatif,” there is a third character that gives alteration to Twyla and Roberta’s memories. The third character is dwelling in the fictional suspension of Morison’s works. The character is a deaf Maggie who is vulnerable, and the far girls of the shelter torment her. As Twyla and Roberta grew older, the memories of what happened to Maggie torment them. Maggie represents silent by having a metamorphic role between the two main characters. Even if the cultural role of Twyla and Roberta are changed, Maggie is still found in the crippling cultural discourse.

It is mentioned that “the heart of stereotyping is the “concept of fixity” in the ideological construction of otherness”. The fixity is defined as signs of historical/cultural/racial differences and is a paradoxical mode of representation.”

Therefore, it can be said that there is one main character in the story for whom the ideological construction of otherness is mixed, and this character is Maggie. Contrary to Twyla and Roberta, the main sign of the difference between Maggie is her disability. Moreover, Maggie has an important prosthetic function in the story. Toni Morison provides the readers with the uncertainty of Maggie’s race, just like the other two characters of the story, and the perception of the two women constantly changes about her.

This change of perception, on one side, can be taken as a consequence of the idea of narrative, and the misleading readers concern more about the racial identities of Roberta and Twyla. Even though time and again gives clues in the story to guess the race of the girls, the readers are not sure about the race of any character.

The conversation between Roberta and Twyla corresponds to the ambiguity of the race of Maggie as well. For instance, Roberta says that “ 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 call me a bigot.”

 To this Twyla replies that

  “What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black.”

 “She wasn’t black,” I said

 Roberta: “Like hell, she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream.”

 Twyla: “Liar!”

  Roberta: You’re the lair. Why don’t you just go home and leave us alone, huh?”

 Roberta has taken the terrifying and traumatic memory of the victimization of Maggie and changed it into a site for her own feelings of victimization by substituting herself for Maggie. It is clearly observed that one cannot precisely be certain about the racial identity of Maggie by considering the conversation between Twyla and Roberta. 

To conclude, “Recitatif” is an African-American short story by Toni Morison. The story is an account of the relationship between the two women and how their relationship is shaped by their differences in races. Morison does not disclose the races of any character of the story. Instead of focusing on the distinctive culture of African-Americans, Toni Morison makes a point that the diving cultures of black and whites are largely based on whites and blacks defining themselves as opposed to each other.

Abstract ideas and concepts in a literary text are represented by objects, characters, and figures. The following are the symbols in the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morison.

The symbol of the dance is introduced in the story when the narrator narrates the first sentence of the story: “My mother danced all night, and Roberta’s was sick.” The illness of Roberta’s mother is parallel to that of Mary’s dancing. Certainly, the dancing habit of Mary prevents her from performing her duties as a mother.  It is possible that the phrase “dancing all night” is used to hide the important detail of Mary’s life. Mary could be a sex worker who dances at the bar, or there could be any other reason that prevents her from taking care of Twyla.

Throughout the story, the act of dancing is linked with some sort of abnormality. The sexuality and rebelliousness of gar girls are shown by the fact they listen to the radio and dance in the orchard to the music. Moreover, explaining her reason for escaping St. Bonny, Roberta says that she had to escape as she cannot dance in the orchard. Therefore, the act of dancing symbolizes the future that Twyla and Roberta want to escape from.

The first part of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, many popular forms of dances common among people were linked with immorality and sexuality. This association also started when Africa-American traditional forms of dances were demonized, and white culture viewed it as hypersexual, wild, and un-Christian.

Moreover, with the character of Maggie, a more metaphorical form of dace is associated. Maggie walks in an unusual way because of her bow legs. Twyla makes an explicit link between her mother dancing and the way Maggie walks. She says that “Maggie was my dancing mother… rocking, dancing, and swaying as she walked.” Twyla, once again, associates dancing with abnormality and disability. In other words, one can say that dancing shows their inability to function according to the set rules of society.

The Orchard

The short story “Recitatif ” contains a lot of symbolic settings. The setting includes the bedroom of Roberta and Twyla, Howards Johnson’s chapel, the Newburg dinner, and the gourmet market. The most important setting of the story is the orchard at St. Bonny’s. While talking about the gar girls and their habit of hanging and dancing at the orchard, Twyla first introduces the orchard.

Twyla would frequently dream about the orchard. She describes the orchard as 2-4 acres and contains apple trees. However, the trees were “ empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny’s but fat with flowers when I left.” The description that Twyla gives about the apple trees is clearly connected between Maggie and trees as Maggie is also crooked because of her disability.

The site of the orchard is also important as the gar girls abuse Maggie by kicking her. Therefore the symbol of the orchard is Edenic (the garden of Eden). It is the place where the innocence of childhood paves the way for “sins: of vanity, cruelty, sexuality, and adolescence. 

The Klondike Bars

The Klondike bars that Twyla bus at the gourmet market after deciding upon it too much represent her character as an adult woman and her circumstances after marriage. It also signifies the difference between Roberta and Twyla. Twyla visits the gourmet market out of curiosity. While walking in the market, she cannot justify spending her husband’s salary on anything except for buying Klondike bars as her son and father-in-law both love it. 

This small incident shows the responsible, restrained, and modest personality of Twyla and also shows how much her life revolves around the desires of others.

However, Twyla feels guilty after buying them. When Roberts suggests having a coffee, Twyla instantly thinks about the bars that will melt in the car. Twyla again thinks about the Klondike bars when the conversation in the coffee bar gets sour. She wonders that she is too childish to think about the instance when Roberta snubs her in Howards Johnson’s. This confirms the link between the Klondike bars and the self-esteem and delicacy of Twyla’s maturity.

Protest Signs/Placards

Roberta and others start protesting when the schools in Newburg are made to integrate through busing. Roberts is holding a placard that reads, “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!”. Twyla accidentally drives past the protest and sees Roberta holding the placards. After having an argument with Roberta, Twyla decides to join the counter-protest as hold the placard that reads, “AND SO DO CHILDREN***.” This placard is followed by a series of other placards that make no context to the ladies but are directed to the shared experience of Roberta and Twyla.

In the story, these protest signs play an important role as it symbolizes Twyla’s and Roberta’s transformation from powerless and vulnerable children to an adult woman who can speak for them on public platforms. However, the statement of Roberta and her identification with motherhood appears to be unconvincing and emphasizes her assimilation with influence, wealth, and responsibility.

The placards, at the same time, also show Roberta and Twyla’s obscurity to the world around them. Twyla repeatedly says while reflecting on her friendship with Roberta that she does not ask questions and appreciates it. Instead of asking questions and interrogation from each other, the two kids simply accept each other’s life as it is. Therefore, the cryptic signs that Twyla makes are only addressed to Roberta and very significant.

The placard “AND SO DO CHILDREN***” could be interpreted in a way that Roberta is the stepmother of four kinds and is not technically a mother. In response to this, Roberta creates a placard that reads that “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?” and “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?.”

Even though these placards have nothing to do with the ongoing protest, the question is a motif with which Roberta and Twyla end their conversation each time when they meet as adults. Roberta’s placards show her responsibility and maturity as an adult, while Twyla’s signs show the unstable childhood of both women. 

The tone of the short story “Recitatif” is realistic and somber. The apparent prejudices make it impossible for the two girls to get along with each other. Robert’s mother and society are among the sources of outside society that makes such prejudices

Point of View

The story is narrated from the first-person point of view. The narrator of the story is the main character, Twyla. Twyla narrates the story from first-hand experience. She cannot understand why Roberta is treating her the way she does. If the story were narrated from Roberta’s point of view, it would be drastically different.

The story begins when the girls are preteens. This was around the 1940s or 1950s. The story continues until both girls are much older women with kids of their own. Although Twyla has settled into a comfortable life, where she is happy, she realizes that when she meets up with Roberta, her life has not been happy or comfortable.

The word “Recitatif” is taken from the French language, which means recitative. It is a style of the musical oratorio that hangs between ordinary speech and song. During operas, Recitatives are used for narrative and dialogic interludes. It can also be defined as the tone and rhythm specific to any language.

These definitions suggest the episodic nature of the story. It deals with the five sections of the story that are different from the ordinary lives of the two main characters Twyla and Roberta. The sections of the story bring rhythm in the lives of the two characters. All of the moments are narrated in the voice of Twyla, so one can say the short story is the “Recitatif of Twyla.

“Recitatif” belongs to the category of a short story fiction. It is a story in racial writing as the race of Twyla and Roberta is ambiguous and debatable. It is not clear which is Caucasian and which one is African American. 

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Toni Morrison

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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Effects of Inherited Prejudice

Through Twyla and Roberta's evolving relationship, Morrison explores how people must deal with the effects of the prejudices they inherit from their parents and culture. At the beginning of the story, Twyla makes clear that racial prejudice was one of the few things her mother taught her. Children are not inherently racist, but they learn racism by watching, listening to, and mimicking the people they admire. Twyla's choice of words emphasizes that her prejudices are not her own when she says her “mother wouldn't like" her sharing a room with a person of another race. Most people learn their core beliefs in childhood from watching and listening to their guardians, who are human and therefore sometimes incorrect. In "Recitatif,” every encounter between Twyla and Roberta is influenced by external factors: their mothers' prejudices and personal issues, the racial tension of the 1960s, class inequality, and the end of segregation in schools. One of the main themes that runs through "Recitatif" is the effects that other people's prejudices have on our thinking and behavior throughout our lives.

The Complexity of Female Relationships

"Recitatif" explores several kinds of female relationships. The story opens with Twyla declaring that both girls are at a shelter as a direct result of their mothers' issues. Although Twyla places blame on the mothers, she also shields them by offering vague descriptions of their flaws. "Dance all night" and "sick"—words assigned to Twyla and Roberta’s mothers, respectively—could have several meanings of varying culpability. This vagueness shows the tendency of girls to defend their mothers even when their behavior negatively affects them. Further, Twyla insists that her abandonment "really wasn't bad" in another attempt to both assign blame to her mother and defend her simultaneously. 

Most girls' first female relationship is with their mother, and it sets a precedent for the female relationships that follow. Twyla and Roberta find solace in each other's company, but they also bring to their friendship all the dysfunctional patterns they have learned thus far. Being thrust into the shelter forces Twyla and Roberta to navigate early female friendships with girls of different races, ages, and backgrounds. As is often the case during adolescence, the girls fall into a social hierarchy as most girls at St. Bonny's form groups with girls of their own race. Twyla and Roberta's status as "not real orphans" lands them on the lowest rung of the social ladder, demonstrating that some traits trump race in the hierarchy. It is this subtle social dynamic that forces Twyla and Roberta together. While they likely wouldn't be friends under normal circumstances, the girls’ shared painful experiences help them develop a genuine connection. Despite this strong bond, the girls spend most of their lives trying to untangle the complexity of their relationship, which is made more complex by its unconventionality.

The Difficulty of Holding Conflicting Ideas

On one hand, "Recitatif" is about a lifelong connection between two women, but on the other, it's also about their persistent disconnect. Morrison creates several dichotomies between Twyla and Roberta as they meet at different moments over time. Twyla and Roberta are perpetually divided by their different races and their socioeconomic statuses. Morrison juxtaposes Twyla as a small-town service worker with Roberta as a carefree, town-hopping Hendrix fan and part of the historic youth culture of the late 1960s. Later, as a middle-class mother, Twyla can afford few luxuries, while Roberta represents the wealthy IBM crowd driving up prices in Newburgh. At the highest point of conflict between the two women, they protest on opposing sides of racial integration in Newburgh’s schools. 

At all times in the story, readers can vacillate between distinguishing which of the main characters is Black and which is white. Morrison never gives a definite answer, so both remain possible. The breaking point in their relationship seems to be the women’s inability to agree on whether Maggie was Black. Neither character can say for sure, so there is no right or wrong answer in the story, only different perspectives. One of the marks of maturity is being able to see the truth in two opposing ideas at once because usually two conflicting ideas both hold some truth. In the final moments of "Recitatif," Roberta comes to the same realization that Twyla has earlier in the story when she wonders about Maggie's wellbeing. Figuring out the right or wrong side of every situation is less important than showing kindness to the people we meet along the way.

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  • Recitatif Summary

The short story Recitatif is divided into "encounters," each one a union or reunion between the characters Twyla and Roberta .

First Encounter:

Meeting in a state home for children, Twyla and Roberta become friends because of their similar circumstances. Both are currently residing at St. Bonny's because their mothers could not provide adequate care for them. Neither of the children knows the reality of what is happening with their mothers, Roberta being told her mother is sick and Twyla being told her mother "dances all night." The girls are different races (black and white), but the reader does not learn which girl is which. Despite these differences, what they have both been through is what makes them such good friends. They spend their time at St. Bonny’s avoiding the badly behaved older girls, happily getting F’s, and making fun of Maggie , the deaf and mute cook with “legs like parentheses.”

On Easter Sunday, their mothers come to visit them, and while the girls hope the women will like each other, Roberta's mother, who is very stern and religious, disdains to shake the hand of Twyla’s mother Mary , who is wearing tight pants and a ratty fur coat. Twyla is very frustrated with and embarrassed by her mother, who, even though she is pretty, is coarse.

Eventually, Roberta leaves the home; even though the girls promise to keep in touch, they do not.

Second Encounter:

Eight years later in the 1960s, Twyla and Roberta coincidentally meet again. Twyla is working as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s, and one day she sees Roberta come in with two men. She is struck by Roberta’s skimpy clothing and copious makeup, as well as her superficial, flirtatious behavior with the men. Twyla is put off by Roberta’s condescension that Twyla does not know who Jimi Hendrix is (the musician Roberta and the men are going to see) and her seeming disinterest in reconnecting, and the encounter ends with Twyla rudely asking how Roberta’s mother is.

Third Encounter:

Twelve years after the second encounter, the women meet again. Both are married, and they bump shopping carts at a new supermarket. The meeting seems a lot more pleasant than the last one. Twyla shares that she is married to James, a fireman, and has a son. Roberta is extremely wealthy, married to a man in the computer industry; she has four stepchildren.

Their pleasant conversation is somewhat tainted when Roberta says at one point that Twyla’s memory of Maggie falling down in St. Bonny’s orchard is wrong—that the older girls pushed her and tore her clothes. Roberta says Twyla must have blocked that memory.

Fourth Encounter:

At an unknown date, the women meet once again. It is a time of racial strife over forced busing. Twyla’s son, Joseph , is supposed to be sent to a school some distance away, and she largely supports the busing.

One day, Twyla drives by the school where Joseph is supposed to go and sees a picket line of women. One of them is Roberta, and Twyla pulls over to talk to her. Roberta is against busing for integration, which bothers Twyla. The two women exchanged heated words and the other picketing women come over and rock Twyla’s car. A few policemen break it up and Twyla drives away. Another disconcerting element of this conversation is that Roberta tells Twyla that Twyla kicked Maggie and pushed her down, and that Maggie was actually black; Twyla doesn’t remember Maggie as black and doesn't think she pushed the deaf and mute woman at all.

Twyla makes her own sign that directly responds to Roberta’s and for several days joins picketers on the pro-busing side. She makes more signs that respond to Roberta, and the other women think she is a bit off. Finally, she makes a sign that asks “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”, and Roberta stops coming.

Fifth Encounter:

On Christmas Eve some years after the previous encounter, the two meet for the final time in a quiet coffee shop. Twyla is out buying a last-minute Christmas tree, and Roberta seems to be out partying with friends.

Roberta apologizes for what she said the last time—she lied when she said that Twyla pushed Maggie. She explains that she wanted the older girls to push Maggie because she saw Maggie as her mother, the symbol of her own frustrations. Twyla feels the same way. After a moment, Roberta begins crying and asks, “What the hell happened to Maggie?”

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Recitatif Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Recitatif is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

Twyla mentions that some older girls liked to dance when they thought no one was watching. Twyla and Roberta developed the habit of looking at the girls while they were dancing, but unfortunately, when the two were caught by the older girls, they...

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Do you mean when the bus unloads at the Howard Johnson?

Twyla is the narrator of the story; she is the opposite race of Roberta, but we do not know who is white and who is black. She meets Roberta at St. Bonaventure's; the two bond over the fact that they are not orphans. Twyla's mother is pretty and...

Study Guide for Recitatif

"Recitatif" study guide contains a biography of Toni Morrison, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Recitatif
  • Character List

Essays for Recitatif

"Recitatif" essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of "Recitatif" by Toni Morrison.

  • The Exclusivity of Racial Categories: An Analysis of the Racial Ambiguity in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”
  • A Grammatical Analysis of Toni Morrison’s Recitatif
  • What Happened To Maggie?
  • Racial Dynamic in Recitafif
  • Memory and the Possibility of Reconciliation in "Recitatif"

Wikipedia Entries for Recitatif

  • Introduction
  • Historical Context
  • Plot Summary
  • Major Themes

toni morrison recitatif analysis

The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'

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Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," appeared in 1983 in "Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women." It is Morrison's only published short story, though excerpts of her novels have sometimes been published as stand-alone pieces in magazines, such as " Sweetness ," excerpted from her 2015 novel "God Help the Child."

The two main characters in the story, Twyla and Roberta, are troubled by the memory of the way they treated — or wanted to treat — Maggie, one of the workers in the orphanage where they spent time as children. "Recitatif" ends with one character sobbing, "What the hell happened to Maggie?"

The reader is left wondering not just about the answer, but also about the meaning of the question. Is it asking what happened to Maggie after the children left the orphanage? Is it asking what happened to her while they were there, given that their memories conflict? Is it asking what happened to make her mute? Or is it a larger question, asking what happened not just to Maggie, but to Twyla, Roberta, and their mothers?

Twyla, the narrator , twice mentions that Maggie had legs like parentheses, and that's a good representation of the way Maggie is treated by the world. She is like something parenthetical, an aside, cut off from the things that really matter. Maggie is also mute, incapable of making herself heard. And she dresses like a child, wearing a "stupid little hat — a kid's hat with ear flaps." She isn't much taller than Twyla and Roberta.

It's as if, by a combination of circumstance and choice, Maggie cannot or will not participate in full adult citizenship in the world. The older girls exploit Maggie's vulnerability, mocking her. Even Twyla and Roberta call her names, knowing she can't protest and half-convinced she can't even hear them.

If the girls are cruel, perhaps it's because every girl in the shelter is also an outsider, shut out  from the mainstream world of families taking care of children, so they turn their scorn toward someone who is even further in the margins than they are. As children whose parents are alive but can't or won't take care of them, Twyla and Roberta are outsiders even within the shelter.

As Twyla and Roberta encounter each other sporadically through the years, their memories of Maggie seem to play tricks on them. One remembers Maggie as Black, the other as white, but eventually, neither feels sure.

Roberta asserts that Maggie didn't fall in the orchard, but rather, was pushed by the older girls. Later, at the height of their argument over school busing, Robert claims that she and Twyla participated, too, in kicking Maggie. She yells that Twyla "kicked a poor old Black lady when she was down on the ground...You kicked a Black lady who couldn't even scream."

Twyla finds herself less troubled by the accusation of violence — she feels confident that she would never have kicked anyone — than by the suggestion that Maggie was Black, which undermines her confidence completely.

'Recitatif' Meaning and Final Thoughts

At different times in the story, both women realize that even though they didn't kick Maggie, they wanted to. Roberta concludes that wanting to was the same as actually doing it.

For the young Twyla, as she watched the "gar girls" kick Maggie, Maggie was her mother — stingy and unresponsive, neither hearing Twyla nor communicating anything important to her. Just as Maggie resembles a child, Twyla's mother seems incapable of growing up. When she sees Twyla at Easter, she waves "like she was the little girl looking for her mother — not me."

Twyla states that during the Easter service, while her mother groaned and re-applied lipstick, "All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed."

And again, when her mother humiliates her by failing to pack a lunch so that they have to eat jellybeans out of Twyla's basket, Twyla says, "I could have killed her."

So perhaps it's no wonder that when Maggie is kicked down, unable to scream, Twyla is secretly pleased. The "mother" is punished for refusing to grow up, and she becomes as powerless to defend herself as Twyla is, which is a kind of justice.

Maggie had been brought up in an institution, just like Roberta's mother, so she must have presented a frightening vision of Roberta's possible future. To see the older girls kick Maggie — the future Roberta didn’t want — must have seemed like exorcising a demon. 

At Howard Johnson's, Roberta symbolically "kicks" Twyla by treating her coldly and laughing at her lack of sophistication. And over the years, the memory of Maggie becomes a weapon that Roberta uses against Twyla.

It is only when they are much older, with stable families and a clear recognition that Roberta has achieved greater financial prosperity than Twyla, that Roberta can finally break down and wrestle, at last, with the question of what happened to Maggie.

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Mary Busker, copper

Race Perceptions in “Recitatif”

By allison stuenkel '20.

ENGL 160: The Literary Imagination

This paper stands out especially because Allison narrates with such honesty the way in which reading this article helped her think in new ways about both Morrison’s story and her reading practices and implicit biases. Her writing is accomplished and sophisticated, and it illustrates the best of how humanities writing can address an audience outside of the academy.

– Valerie Billing

Growing up in the diverse community of Waterloo, Iowa, I have been exposed to people with different cultures, ethnicities, and races than my own. I absolutely love learning about the unique experiences of every individual and trying to be cognizant of my biases. However, the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison truly challenged the unconscious stereotypes I did not know I believed. In addition to this story, I read “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation” by literary critic Elizabeth Abel, which exposed me to different interpretations about the perceptions of race and femininity in this story. Although my initial reading of “Recitatif” resulted in guilt and self-criticism, Abel’s focus on how fantasies and experiences influence our analysis changed my perspective.

The short story “Recitatif” challenges the reader’s perceptions of race and identity by leaving the race of the two main characters ambiguous. The only clue we get from the narrator, Twyla, is that Roberta is “a girl from a whole other race” and together they looked “like salt and pepper” (Morrison 160). Therefore, the audience is left to decide which character is black and which is white. When I read this story originally, I believed that Twyla was black from the first sentence I read. I thought it was made very clear that Twyla was African American. Looking back, I think it was because the author of “Recitatif,” Toni Morrison, is black, so I unjustifiably assumed her main character would be of the same race. However, I now can point to specific passages that support my initial reading of the story. One crucial line for me was when Twyla reflected on Roberta’s acquired wealth, commenting: “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world” (167). Throughout the history of the United States, racism and segregation played a huge role in how our society functioned. Despite the Civil Rights Movement, white privilege still exists. Therefore, I interpreted the vague “they” in this line as referring to white people and commenting on the advantage white people have. In another scene, Twyla finds Roberta protesting school integration. The two interact, and Roberta claims her right to protest, asserting “it is a free country,” while Twyla retorts, “Not yet, but it will be” (171). I viewed these comments as Twyla hoping for racial equality through integration, while Roberta rejects the busing due to racism.

Mary Busker, copper

It was not until I discussed this short story with my classmates that I realized that the race of these two characters was never mentioned. At this point, I felt an intense sense of shame and embarrassment. I pride myself in trying to be aware of my biases. However, I made a lot of assumptions by applying my own context to this story. My emotional reactions made me want to explore various interpretations to “Recitatif” and learn how literary critics reacted to the interesting dynamic between characters of different races.

The author of the literary critique also made generalizations, but she came up with different results. Elizabeth Abel, who is a white feminist writer, viewed Twyla as white because she focused on the social situations in which the characters find themselves. Abel also mentions that most white readers read Twyla as white, while most black readers read Twyla as black (Abel 471). In Abel’s interpretation, Twyla looks towards Roberta’s socio-economic status as something she desires and feels like she deserves. As Abel points out, “Twyla feels vulnerable to Roberta’s judgement and perceives Roberta (despite her anxiety about their differences) as possessing something she lacks and craves” (473). Twyla looks at the good food that Roberta receives and the luxuries of her adulthood and feels inferior despite the fact that American social structures privilege those with white skin. Abel believes that Twyla’s sense of social and physical inadequacy is rooted in a white woman’s fantasy about the ultimate strength of “black women’s potency” (473-474). Abel is using this phrase in reference to Richard Dyer’s analysis that discourses around blackness possess “spontaneity, emotion, [and] naturalness,” and while black discourses see these as general contributions to society, white readers see these as qualities only black people have (qtd in Abel 474, ftn. 4). In Abel’s interpretation, Twyla is jealous because she does not possess the same strong qualities that Roberta has. In order to analyze the scene about racial integration, Abel wrote to Toni Morrison who explained that Roberta may not want her upper-class children to go to school with working-class children. Abel concludes that “Roberta’s resistance to busing, then, is based on class rather than race loyalties” (Abel 476). Overall, Abel focuses her argument on how the two characters react to social situations. Analyzing the way the characters make decisions and address their circumstances helped her determine their races.

In contrast, Abel’s black feminist colleague Lula Fragd viewed Twyla as black because she focused on historical context and cultural practices for her interpretation. She read Twyla’s name as culturally black and made note that “Jimi Hendrix appealed more to white than to black audiences” (Able 474). Rather than focus on the daughters’ interactions, she focuses on their politics as mothers. For example, in the bussing situation, Fragd read Twyla as “politically correct but politically naive and morally conventional” (475). In her interpretation, Twyla supports integration, but does not understand the deep underworking of racism in American society. Roberta, on the other hand, was “the more socially adventurous, if politically conservative” white woman (475). Roberta is adventurous in her life choices but still holds conservative views about integration in schools. Fragd also points to specific instances of coldness from Roberta as “a case of straightforward white racism” and her opposition to integration as “self-interested resistance” ( 475). Fragd thus reads Roberta as racist and selfish. Abel offers these two different interpretations in her analysis of “Recitatif” to illustrate how we perceive race in literature differently depending on our own identities and experiences.

Abel parallels the competition between these two female characters with the tensions that arise between white and black feminist writers. Instead of pointing to guilt, Abel uses her literary analysis to open up a conversation about how our racial biases affect every text we encounter. I found this analysis interesting because instead of being rooted in shame, Abel focused on a new learning opportunity. I was intrigued that my interpretation of the character’s races did not fit the typical interpretation for a white reader. Nevertheless, my interpretation, as well as Abel’s and Fragd’s, are all incorrect. As Abel points out, “the text’s heterogeneous inscriptions of race resist a totalizing reading” (476). Instead of trying to define race, we need to view race through a new lens. When reading any literary work, it is impossible to avoid our unconscious assumptions, biases, and backgrounds. Therefore, as a critic, I need to be careful when reading race onto characters. Abel argues, “there are as serious, although very different, problems with revaluing the literalness of race as with asserting its figurativeness” (488). Characters that exist in books are not real, so they do not exactly fit the mold of having human qualities. Going forward, I need to be aware of applying stereotypes towards characters that are figuratively black or white.

As a reader, my past experiences influenced my interpretations and perverted my ideas of the characters.

As a reader, my past experiences influenced my interpretations and perverted my ideas of the characters. A white feminist reader, such as Abel and myself, can run the risk of “potentially reproducing the structure of dominance she wants to subvert” (Abel 488). This dominance can be the institution of racism or even sexism. By inserting my own experiences into this story, I unknowingly reinforced negative structures such as discrimination. When reading this story, as well as throughout my life, I have tried to work against making generalizations and have attempted to challenge racial discrimination. However, by specifically reading Twyla as black, I ended up strengthening the stereotypes that I work so hard to avoid. For example, I was not surprised at all that Twyla’s mom “danced all night” and that her idea of a meal “was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo” (Morrison 159, 160). Although neglectful mothers can be of any race, I assumed that Twyla must have the black mom because I grew up with black classmates who had distant mothers with different priorities than their children. By believing this assumption and applying it to “Recitatif,” I was reinforcing another stereotype and trapped Twyla by my interpretation of her mother. As Abel points out, “our inability to avoid inscribing racially inflected investments and agendas limits white feminism’s capacity either to impersonate black feminism, and potentially to render it expendable, or to counter its specific credibility” (497). In other words, by imposing my past experiences, I undermined the critical components of Morrison’s story.

Similar to Able, mid-to-late twentieth-century black feminist Audre Lorde was also concerned with attacking structures of dominance and bringing awareness to the racism within the feminist community. At the Second Sex Conference on October 29, 1979, Lorde gave a speech in which she discussed the separation of feminists as a result of racism and homophobia. She argued that in order to work together against sexism, feminists must find unity. Yet, she asserted that “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist;” instead women must “take our differences and make them strengths” (Lorde 215). Feminists must learn from each other in order to fully challenge patriarchal society, and not get tied down by racism. To counteract our assumptions, we need to “produce our readings cautiously and locate them in a self-conscious and self-critical relation to black feminist criticism” (Abel 498). Personally, I need to be conscientious about how I read characters and how being white influences what I interpret. With every piece of writing I analyze, I should reflect on how my interpretation may be damaging to a non-dominant group, and take steps to reconcile my perceptions.

Throughout “Recitatif” there are unifying moments between the two main characters that move past their racial identity. One character, named Maggie, plays a significant role because she is assigned different races by both of the characters. Twyla contends Maggie “was old and sandy-colored,” while Roberta later yells at Twyla for kicking “a poor black lady” (Morrison 161, 172). At first, Maggie serves as a point of contention between the two characters, as Twyla believes that Maggie was not black and cannot recall kicking her, while Roberta remains adamant about her stance. Towards the end of the story, the two characters meet after a long period of time and after some small talk their attention is brought back to Maggie. At the end of the story Roberta cries, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” (175). Only in the last couple of paragraphs of “Recitatif” is Maggie’s race of no importance to these two characters. While they argued throughout the story about her race, it ultimately does not matter whether Maggie was black or white—what remains in their minds is how others treated her. Their mindset moves past race to focus on victimization and guilt. As Abel writes, “race enforces no absolute distinctions between either characters or readers, all of whom occupy diverse subject positions, some shared, some antithetical” (495). Twyla and Roberta are no different in their concern for Maggie. In the end, they are no longer divided by their race—they both share a common feeling of sorrow and worry about Maggie. Another example of their similarities is that both characters are unified in their desire to kill as well as love their absent mothers (Abel 495). Both characters are children of neglect and lived together in St. Bonny’s orphanage. When reading, I need to keep in mind both the uniqueness of people of different races and also their similar experiences. Ultimately, the race of these two characters does not define everything about them—every person is unique. Therefore, our assumptions are typically invalid because of the individual experience of every person and character.

Reading “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison truly opened my eyes to the unconscious stereotypes I possessed and how my past experiences and outlook as a young white woman influenced my interpretations. Through my analysis of Abel’s “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,” I realized the importance of being reflective. Instead of feeling guilt and shame, I need to realize how my past experiences and social context influence my analysis. I am interested to apply this objective approach to other short stories.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, Spring 1993, pp. 470–498. JSTOR, .

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” Lesbian Culture: An Anthology, edited by Julia Penelope & Susan Wolfe, The Crossing Press, 1993, pp. 214-216.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson, Oxford U P, 1995, pp. 159-175.

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toni morrison recitatif analysis

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Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”

  • How is the theme of maternity explored in the story? Give at least two examples.
  • Morrison adds issues of class to what is already a complicated story about race. Why? Where in the story do you see evidence of this?
  • What is the meaning of Morrison’s title, Recitatif? How does it work as a title for this story?
  • What are Twyla and Roberta fighting about in the section about school busing? What’s going on between them?

Is the story’s perspective on race relations ultimately pessimistic or optimistic? Why?

Why do you think Morrison chooses not to be explicit about which girl is African American and which girl is Caucasian?

5 Responses to Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”

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At the beginning of the story, it can be shown that neither character found the other to their liking based on pure judgment of skin. Throughout the story, you start to see some changes occurring when both girls are hanging together more. There was a scene where they were fixing and brushing each other hair while preparing to meet their mothers. Bonding to this level is very sister-like and powerful. This action is looking past skin color and more on human connection, regardless of race. I believe Morrison is optimistic about race relations due to the positive changes both characters had from beginning to end. Initially, they started off as enemies to long lost sisters catching up about their lives. reminscing about their past life together, a very touching and bonding experience.

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In Toni Morrison “Recitatif”, the decision to not to identify the races of the two main characters was a choice by Morrison to challenge the reader’s own racial prejudice of stereotypes that we would normally categorize through objects, language, hair, ect… . By Morriosion not specifically addressing the race of the characters Morrision can address more valuable topics like friendship, family, and class, by this she can focus more on the plot of the book while not tying their whole characters around their race. Morrision in turn is critiquing how as readers it has been seen as important to know the race and identity of a character to get our own opinion of the book. I believe the ambiguity of the race makes the readers ask more questions about the book, something we don’t see as often in other books. With other books we would ask questions of what the author wanted the message to be, but with “Recitatif” we can ask more societal questions of why we thought one character was African American and what made us think this way. As readers we deeper dive into this thought adds to our own upbringing and environment that we have been surrounded by. Overall I think that Toni Morriosion did this because she wanted to challenge us in our own stereotypes of what we categorize people as being Black or White.

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In the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison, the decision of not identifying the race of either Roberta or Twyla leaves room for each reader to have a different interpretation based on their own biases and stereotypes. What makes this decision so interesting is that because we don’t know their race our social prejudice is revealed. When we reveal our own biases and prejudice, it helps us see where our societal views are being conflicted and led on by these biases. Toni Morrison created this short story as an experiment for society and explicitly did not include a clear description of the character’s race to accomplish this reflection to hold us accountable for our own social biases.

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I think Morrison chooses to not be explicit about the narrator and Roberta’s specific races to make a point about racial stereotypes. Both characters have different views and experiences, some of which challenge the stereotypes of the race a reader may assume them to be part of. By leaving out Twyla and Roberta’s races in a story where race is a recurring theme, Morrison makes readers make their own conclusions while reading the text, which may or may not line up with the reality of the characters’ races.

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In my opinion, the story’s perspective on race relations was ultimately optimistic. There were a few examples where the narrator was said to be naive because she truly believed that races got along well. In the reading, the narrator says that to Roberta and Roberta brushes it off because she knows what is really going on.

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toni morrison recitatif analysis

toni morrison recitatif analysis

Toni Morrison

Everything you need for every book you read., mary (twyla’s mother).

Recitatif PDF

Roberta’s Mother

The gar girls (the older girls), joseph benson, jimi hendrix.

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toni morrison recitatif analysis

Toni Morrison Collective hosts book talks, giveaways during December

12/04/2023 By | Anne V. Adams , A&S Communications

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Toni Morrison’s  M.A. ‘55 Nobel Prize in Literature, Cornell’s Toni Morrison Collective is partnering with Calvary Baptist Church to give away free copies of two of Morrison’s books and hold book talks in various locations during the month of December.

Through a $2,500 Community Celebrations grant to Calvary Baptist from the Tompkins County Tourism program, the project “Ithaca Reads Toni Morrison” will celebrate Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize by giving away 100 copies of the author’s posthumously published short story “Recitatif” and 100 copies of the illustrated children’s book “Who’s Got Game: The Ant or the Grasshopper,” co-authored by Morrison and her son Slade.

“The fact that Toni Morrison, during her first year as a master’s student, lodged at a house just a couple of doors up the street from historic Calvary Baptist Church created a perfect context for a collaboration,” said Anne V. Adams, professor emerita of Africana studies and comparative literature and chair of the Toni Morrison Collective. “The project makes Ithacans aware that this Nobel writer lived in Ithaca for two years and also introduces many readers to the children’s books that Morrison co-authored. And, since we’ve chosen to give copies of her short story “Recitatif” — augmented to book form through an Introduction by Zadie Smith — the project presents this work to many who might know her novels, but not this posthumous publication.”

This project is also supported by the Omega Nu Omicron chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Buffalo Street Books, New Roots School, Tompkins County Public Library, and Enfield Community Center. Staff of the Cornell Library, which is the administrative base for the Toni Morrison Collective, provided assistance with graphics for this project.

Book Talks for each book are scheduled for the following dates and locations:


  • Dec. 3, 3 p.m., Tompkins County Public Library
  • Dec. 3, 5 p.m., virtual discussion hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
  • Dec. 10, 3 p.m., Buffalo Street Books
  • Dec. 13, 7 p.m., Enfield Community Center
  • Dec. 16, 2 p.m. Calvary Baptist Church

“Who’s Got Game: The Ant or the Grasshopper?”

  • Dec. 2, Noon, Calvary Baptist Church
  • Dec. 8, 6 p.m., Enfield Community Center
  • Dec. 9, 10:30 a.m., Tompkins County Public Library
  • Dec. 16, 10:30 a.m., Tompkins County Public Library

The Collective will also donate 15 copies of Morrison’s children’s anthology, “A Toni Morrison Treasury,” to afterschool programs in Tompkins County. Members of the Collective and collaborating Cornell students will present the books and read from them with children at the afterschool programs around the time of the author’s birthday, Feb. 18.

For details about the project and information about obtaining free copies of the books, visit or email [email protected]

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  1. Recitatif" by Toni Morrison

    Over 27,000 video lessons and other resources, you're guaranteed to find what you need. Learn faster. Stay motivated. Study smarter.

  2. Recitatif Summary & Analysis

    A summary and analysis of the short story \"Recitatif\" by Toni Morrison, a powerful exploration of race, racism, and trauma. The story follows Twyla and Roberta, two girls who share a room in a shelter and form a connection through their shared experience of abandonment and isolation. The story reveals how they face challenges and challenges each other, and how they confront their own vulnerabilities and differences.

  3. Recitatif: Study Guide

    Deeper Study Published as part of the collection Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women in 1983, "Recitatif" is the only short story composed by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. The story is a fictional account of two girls who meet at a children's shelter and their subsequent encounters throughout their lives.

  4. Recitatif Study Guide

    Summary Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Toni Morrison's Recitatif. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides. Recitatif: Introduction A concise biography of Toni Morrison plus historical and literary context for Recitatif. Recitatif: Plot Summary

  5. Recitatif: Full Plot Summary

    Summary Full Plot Summary The story begins when Twyla and Roberta, two eight-year-old girls, are introduced to each other as roommates at a children's shelter called St. Bonaventure's, or St. Bonny's. One of the girls is Black while the other is white. The narrator does not specify which child is which race.

  6. 'Recitatif' Review: Toni Morrison on Race and Culture

    "Recitatif" depicts an interracial friendship between two girls — one white, one Black — who meet in a shelter. They have different reasons for being there: Roberta's mother is sick, while...

  7. Recitatif Summary and Study Guide

    Recitatif Recitatif Toni Morrison 47 pages • 1 hour read Toni Morrison Recitatif Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1983 A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

  8. Recitatif by Toni Morrison Plot Summary

    Intro Recitatif Summary Next Recitatif The story opens with Twyla 's declaration that she and Roberta were brought to the orphanage of St. Bonny's because Twyla's mother ( Mary) " danced all night" and Roberta's mother was ill. When they are initially introduced they do not get along.

  9. Recitatif

    Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" is set in three different time periods, in which racial tensions and African American progressive movements peaked, contributing to a shift in culture in the United States. The beginning of the story took place in the 1950's when Twyla and Roberta first met as eight year olds.

  10. Recitatif Story Analysis

    Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of "Recitatif" by Toni Morrison. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

  11. Recitatif by Toni Morrison

    "Recitatif" Analysis Lesson Summary Frequently Asked Questions What races are Twyla and Roberta? Though the reader is told that one of the girls is Black and of the girls is white, Toni...

  12. Review: Toni Morrison's short story on race, "Recitatif"

    Toni Morrison's only short story, "Recitatif," has just been published posthumously as a stand-alone volume. (Mitsu Yasukawa / ftt) By David L. Ulin Feb. 17, 2022 6 AM PT On the Shelf...

  13. Recitatif Analysis

    The title of Toni Morrison's short story, Recitatif," means, among other things, "a recital" of some sort, and the protagonist, Twyla, provides us with a "recital" of her connect with Roberta ...

  14. The Genius of Toni Morrison's Only Short Story

    In the extraordinary "Recitatif," Morrison withholds crucial details of racial identity, making the reader the subject of her experiment. By Zadie Smith January 23, 2022 Illustration by Diana...

  15. Recitatif Summary, Themes, Chaarcters, & Analysis

    Read our detailed notes below on the short story Recitatif by Toni Morrison. Our notes cover Recitatif summary, themes, characters, and literary analysis. Recitatif Summary Contents

  16. Recitatif: Themes

    Themes Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. The Effects of Inherited Prejudice Through Twyla and Roberta's evolving relationship, Morrison explores how people must deal with the effects of the prejudices they inherit from their parents and culture.

  17. Recitatif Summary

    by Toni Morrison Buy Study Guide Recitatif Summary The short story Recitatif is divided into "encounters," each one a union or reunion between the characters Twyla and Roberta. First Encounter: Meeting in a state home for children, Twyla and Roberta become friends because of their similar circumstances.

  18. The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'

    Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," appeared in 1983 in "Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women." It is Morrison's only published short story, though excerpts of her novels have sometimes been published as stand-alone pieces in magazines, such as " Sweetness ," excerpted from her 2015 novel "God Help the Child."

  19. Recitatif Themes

    Recitatif by Toni Morrison Save Guides New Save any guide for easy access later! Got It Upgrade to A + Intro Plot Summary & Analysis Themes Quotes Characters Symbols Theme Viz Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Recitatif makes teaching easy. Everything you need for every book you read. "Sooo much more helpful than SparkNotes.

  20. Recitatif Study Guide

    This study guide for Toni Morrison's Recitatif offers summary and analysis on themes, symbols, and other literary devices found in the text. Explore Course Hero's library of literature materials, including documents and Q&A pairs. ... Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" is told in the past tense by Twyla Benson as she shares her memories of encounters ...

  21. Race Perceptions in "Recitatif"

    Reading "Recitatif" by Toni Morrison truly opened my eyes to the unconscious stereotypes I possessed and how my past experiences and outlook as a young white woman influenced my interpretations. Through my analysis of Abel's "Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation," I realized the importance of ...

  22. Recitatif Character Analysis

    Characters Character Map. Have study documents to share about Recitatif? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access! Detailed analysis of Characters in Toni Morrison's Recitatif. Learn all about how the characters in Recitatif such as Twyla Benson and Roberta Fisk Norton contribute to the story and how they fit into the plot.

  23. Toni Morrison, "Recitatif"

    Toni Morrison, "Recitatif". Posted on December 6, 2023 by JSylvor. How is the theme of maternity explored in the story? Give at least two examples. Morrison adds issues of class to what is already a complicated story about race. Why?

  24. Recitatif By Toni Morrison

    Recitatif By Toni Morrison - Short Story Summary, Analysis, Review The CodeX Cantina 32.4K subscribers 19K views 2 years ago Literature from Women Authors ...more ...more Girl by Jamaica...

  25. Recitatif Character Analysis

    Intro Plot Summary & Analysis Themes Quotes Symbols Theme Viz Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Recitatif makes teaching easy. Everything you need for every book you read. "Sooo much more helpful than SparkNotes. The way the content is organized and presented is seamlessly smooth, innovative, and comprehensive." Get LitCharts A +

  26. Toni Morrison Collective hosts book talks, giveaways during December

    Through a $2,500 Community Celebrations grant to Calvary Baptist from the Tompkins County Tourism program, the project "Ithaca Reads Toni Morrison" will celebrate Morrison's 1993 Nobel Prize by giving away 100 copies of the author's posthumously published short story "Recitatif" and 100 copies of the illustrated children's book ...