Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif' of Race, Gender, and Myth

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Author: Terry Otten
Date: Spring 2003
From: South Carolina Review(Vol. 35, Issue 2)
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 126)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,831 words

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[(essay date spring 2003) In the following essay, Otten discusses "Recitatif" as both a departure from and a reflection of Morrison's novels, noting that this short story not only explores racial and gender considerations, but also probes the mythic significance of initiation themes.]

Although it has only received limited critical attention to date, Toni Morrison's only published short story, "Recitatif," is certain to attract more interest as Morrison scholarship continues its dizzy expansion. First published in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women in 1983 and subsequently reprinted in Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories a decade later, this richly subtle postmodern work is both a departure from and a reflection of her major fiction. Like Song of Solomon and especially Sula it employs doubles as central characters, but it explores the relationship between a mixed racial pair rather than two African-American figures. Morrison of course often treats black female siblings, such as Claudia and Frieda MacTeer in The Bluest Eye and Denver and Beloved in Beloved.1 She has commented that black sisterhood contains "a deep old meaning--it was valid, never secondary. Black women had to be real and genuine to each other, there was no one else" (Russell 45). In Sula the sisterhood is figurative, but Sula Peace and Nel Wright possess the intimacy of sisters to the point that they are "two throats and one eye" (147). In "Recitatif" the mixed sisterhood assumes a new dimension beyond conventional racial or gender considerations. Although as David Goldstein-Shirley observes, it "can be viewed as a nineteen-page distillation of Morrison's grand project of deconstructing race and racism" (97), and an assault on social ideology, it also assumes mythic significance as the story of a "fall" and initiation, a theme that surfaces as well in most Morrison texts.

In Playing in the Dark Morrison calls the short story "an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial" (xi). Among the novels, only Tar Baby devotes proportionately so much attention to a white character, although, ironically, as readers we remain uncertain which is the white character and which the black. Within the constraints of the short story genre, Morrison partially employs the narrative strategy she manipulates in Sula: tracing the evolving relationship of paired characters, in this case one black and one white, across a spectrum of time from pubescence to middle age, culminating in a moment of epiphany that retroactively illuminates the meaning of their shared passage from innocence to experience. Like Morrison's other work, the story challenges the reductive binary oppositions that have dominated Western, or what is sometimes more particularly called "Euroamerican," culture, by subtly exposing and deconstructing the racial assumptions of the reader.

Through the first person account of the narrator, Twyla, Morrison describes the communion of "Others" beginning when the two girls at eight years of age spend four months in an orphanage for girls, then depicts a brief encounter at a restaurant when they are in their teens, followed by a hostile engagement outside a school when they are twenty-eight, and finally their climactic encounter a few years later. As Elizabeth Abel concludes in her elaborate reading of the story, "By replacing the conventional signifiers of racial difference ... with radically relativistic ones ... and by substituting for the racialized body a series of disaggregate cultural parts ... the story renders race a contested terrain variously mapped from diverse positions in the social landscape" (471-72).2 In effect, Morrison makes her readers co-conspirators in the racial encoding that underlies the story, an ironic reflection of her often-repeated insistence that she always leaves space in her stories which readers must fill. When they first meet, Twyla gets "sick at my stomach" when she is placed in a room at the orphanage with "a girl from a whole other race" (438). She warns the cynical worker whom the girls call Big Bozo3 that "My mother won't like you putting me in here" (438), but she soon comes to identify with Roberta despite her mother's racial biases about those of the "other" race who "never washed their hair and ... smelled funny" (438). She and Roberta are united as the two outsiders who "weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped" (439). Both their single mothers are dysfunctional, Twyla's mother Mary having abandoned her "to dance all night," and Roberta's mother being mentally and physically "sick." Physically opposites, like the dark black Sula Peace and light skinned Nel Wright in Sula, they form an intimate union, guarding each other from the older "put-out girls" who gather in the apple orchard and attempt to beat them. It is in the orchard where the girls' initiation occurs, the place, they come to realize, where they lose their innocence, where in their silence they participate conjointly in a wilful, if unwitting, violation.

As a child, Twyla gains a first insight into the passage from innocence when she dreams about the orchard, that conventional symbol of Edenic innocence. "I don't know why I dreamt about that orchard so much," she remarks. "Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important I mean" (439). But then she recalls that Maggie, the poor, mute, "sandy-colored" woman who worked at St. Bonny from early morning until two in the afternoon, "fell down there once" as the big girls taunted and laughed at her. "We should have helped her up, I know," she confesses; "but we were scared of those girls with lipstick and eyebrow pencil" (439). Ironically, Maggie represents the girls' own lost innocence--"she wasn't much taller than we were," and she wore a "dumb" hat with ear flaps, "dressing like a kid and never saying anything at all" (440). It is not the disdain of the big girls but her own cruelty that Twyla describes, a cruelty that gains meaning only when she recalls the events in the orchard at the end of the story. In a sense Twyla and Roberta give the mute Maggie voice. Wondering if she can cry or hear, they yell "Dummy! Dummy!" and "Bow legs! Bow legs!" to the silent woman Twyla remembers as having "legs like parentheses." "I think she could hear and didn't let on," Twyla says in the present tense of the narrative, "And it shames me even now to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her names and couldn't tell on us" (440). It is her first admission of culpability, an acknowledgment reminiscent of Claudia McTeer's confession in The Bluest Eye that "We were wrong" in using Pecola Breedlove to "silence our own nightmares" (205); even though, as Abel remarks, Maggie, like Twyla and Roberta, is "a figure of racial undecidability" (472).

When Twyla and Roberta's mothers come to visit after twenty-eight days (perhaps a reflection of the female cycle like the twenty-eight sections of Beloved or the nine sections of Paradise), they reintroduce the racial binaries that to this point the girls have ignored. Both girls conceal an ambiguous love-hate for their mothers, whose separate identities threaten their intimate union. Twyla is embarrassed by her mother's wearing the "green slacks that I hated and hated even more now because didn't she know we were going to chapel"; yet she is "proud because she looked so beautiful ... A pretty mother on earth is better than a beautiful one dead in the sky even if she did leave you all alone when she went dancing" (441). Suggestively, the naive Mary "smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother" (441), instead of the mother seeking her child. Roberta's mother intimidates Twyla with the huge cross on her chest and the "biggest Bible ever made." When she refuses to acknowledge Twyla's mother and provokes Mary's angry condemnation of the "bitch," she ironically reinforces the alliance of the girls because Twyla believes Roberta "was sorry that her mother would not shake my mother's hand. And I liked that and I liked the fact that she didn't say a word about Mary groaning all the way through the service and not bringing any lunch" (442). In the four months at St. Bonny's until Roberta leaves "in May when the apple trees were heavy and white" (442), the abandoned girls survive the divisive power of "racial codes" and seemingly maintain their childlike naiveté.

In the short second encounter that occurs several years later at the Howard Johnson's restaurant where Twyla works outside Kingston, racial consciousness tests the sisterhood. Roberta, now a teenager on the way to meet Jimi Hendrix with two possibly white hippie male companions, is now "lipstick and eyebrow pierced" like the girls in the orchard at St. Bonny's. Barely acknowledging Twyla and laughing "a private laugh that included the guys but the guys only," she demeans her friend, who is self-consciously dressed in servant clothes with "the blue-and-white triangle" on her head. When Twyla reveals that she does not even know who Jimi Hendrix is, Roberta blurts out, "Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix, asshole," exposing Twyla's ignorance of the black icon of popular culture. The awkward moment ends when the teenagers half-heartedly ask about each other's mother, the characters who first expose the girls' racial divide. The passage from childhood to adolescence charts the movement from their close, childlike union at St. Bonny's to a vast chasm created by racial encoding in which the reader is seduced to participate.

When they next meet at age twenty-eight, Twyla is married to a fireman and has a child, Joseph, and Roberta is married to a wealthy computer executive and has acquired four stepchildren. By this time, racial issues openly surface. Twyla lives in the declining urban environment of Newburgh where "[h]alf the population is on welfare," although her husband's large family still happily resides there. Roberta lives in the renovated old town of Annandale where IBM executives "put shutters up and herb gardens in their back yards" (444). The two meet when Twyla, out of curiosity, goes to a stylish new Food Emporium on the edge of town that caters with its gourmet cuisine to the new upscale, seemingly white, population. Feeling socially out of place in the upperclass store, she buys only Klondike ice cream bars for her father-in-law and son. When she sees Roberta "dressed to kill" in diamonds and a sleek white summer's dress, her old friend carries "a bunch of asparagus and two cartons of fancy water," apparently images of a well-to-do white culture. The divide widens as Roberta takes her to her limousine, driven by a Chinese chauffeur, and tells her about her two servants. Now thinking along racial lines, Twyla wonders how Roberta has acquired such wealth: "Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they run the world" (445)--but Morrison keeps the reference to "they" intentionally ambiguous.

The racial separation gradually closes as they relive the past, temporarily returning to an innocence devoid of such racial awareness. "Now we were like sisters separated for much too long" (446), Twyla thinks, similarly to the way Nel embraces Sula after her ten year absence; and she wonders what it was that cemented their relationship at St. Bonny's despite the difference in race--"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 in what had to be believed" (446). She alludes to that prelapsarian state where lack of self-consciousness and a measure of cultural ignorance protected their tenuous relationship. Seeking for a common humanity that could transcend color, she finds comforting memory in their seeming days of innocence. What really binds them, though, is not innocence but guilt. This shocking revelation first surfaces when Roberta asks if Twyla remembers the time the big girls knocked Maggie down in the orchard. When Twyla denies that this is what happened, Roberta insists, "Sure it is. In the orchard. Remember how scared we were?" (447). And when Twyla later asks, "Are you sure about Maggie?" Roberta contends, "You've blocked it, Twyla ... Believe me. It happened. We were there" (447). Though not yet able to confront her own culpability, Twyla confesses, "The Maggie thing was troubling to me." When she tells Roberta she will call her, knowing that she will not, she tries to evade the "troubling" awareness that begins to surface: "Roberta had messed up my past somehow with that business about Maggie. I wouldn't forget a thing like that. Would I?" (448). Interestingly, Roberta, rather than Twyla, provides the necessary information to construct the subtle details that explain the passage from innocence to experience. Their shared story is reconstructed from both their memories, Roberta as much as Twyla becoming the central consciousness in the narrative. And again, as Goldstein-Shirley argues, it is left to the reader to determine which of all the characters, including Maggie, is black and which is white, thereby forcing readers "to participate in the deconstruction of racism in society" by coercing them "to participate in the deconstruction of racism in the text" (108). Morrison's strategy marries racial and social consciousness with a mythic fall into self awareness.

Morrison's skillful manipulation of racial stereotypes and the theme of initiation climaxes when the two characters next meet at the school where Twyla sees Roberta carrying a sign protesting the busing of her children to another school for racial balance. The racial chasm that separates them ironically leads to a growing awareness of their shared guilt. Reflecting the stereotyping that generates racial tension between wealthy whites who resist and blacks who favor busing to achieve integration and equality, the two "sisters" exactly mirror each other in their dialogue:

"I wonder what made me think you were different.""I wonder what made me think you were different."(449)

From opposite sides, they are in fact mirror images. As Goldstein-Shirley notes, they are remarkably similar in their gender roles. Unlike the strong women in Morrison's novels who contest male domination, both Roberta and Twyla seem to accept "traditional gender roles for husbands and wives," thus "the bracketing of gender contributes to the text's task of concentrating readers' attention on race" (99-100). As though trying to separate Roberta from the protesters, Twyla cries out, "Who do they think they are? ... Look at them, Roberta. They're Bozo" (449, italics mine)--"Bozo" (Mrs. Itkin at St. Bonny's) being the symbol of hypocrisy and repression. Ironically, when the pickets surround Twyla's car and begin rocking it, Twyla responds: "Automatically, I reached for Roberta, like the old days in the orchard when they saw us watching them and we had to get out of there, and if one of us fell the other pulled her up and if one of us was caught the other stayed to kick and scratch, and neither would leave the other behind" (449).

Her instinctive response echoes that of Nel in Sula who, even at the moment she discovers Sula and her husband Jude making love, "waited for Sula to look up at [her] and say one of those lovely college words ... which [she] never understood but which [she] loved because they sounded so comfortable and firm" (105). It is not racial and class division that most troubles Twyla, however, but rather Roberta's stinging accusation that Twyla "kicked a poor old black woman when she was on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot" (450). That Roberta calls Maggie "black" dramatically magnifies Roberta's accusation and enhances the irony, and when Twyla vigorously denies that Maggie was black, Roberta responds, "Like hell she wasn't, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn't even scream" (450). The shift from "you" to "we" links the two in a common act of brutality, a joint fall from innocence, like that shared by Sula and Nel at Chicken Little's death in Sula. Furthermore, the fact that Maggie was neither black nor white but both and neither--"sandy-colored"--makes the "sisters" co-conspirators across racial lines, reflections of the black girls in The Bluest Eye who, Claudia confesses, "honed [their] egos on [Pecola], padded [their] character with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of [their] strength" (205). Maggie played the scapegoat who allowed both girls to exorcize their anger and guard against their own vulnerability. "I knew she wouldn't scream," Twyla comes to realize, "couldn't--just like me--and I was glad about that" (451).

Once again Twyla struggles to evade such a devastating truth. She begins a personal dialogue with Roberta to separate herself from guilt, like someone trying to convince herself. She counters Roberta's sign "MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!" with "AND SO DO CHILDREN****" and then "HOW WOULD YOU KNOW," until the signs get "crazier each day" (450) and even the pickets on her side of the street are clueless to their meaning. Her last is totally incomprehensible except to Roberta: "IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?"--a private communication which can be taken both as sarcasm and an expression of concern. It hints at the ultimate truth that binds Twyla and Roberta, their shared orphancy, their common mythic quest for a mother, their dual "fall" from innocence.

When Twyla looks for Roberta at Joseph's graduation just before their final meeting some years later, she admits that she "actually couldn't be certain" about Maggie's being white or black. At last she arrives at the epiphany she has fled: "I tried to reassure myself about the race thing for a long time until it dawned on me that the truth was already there, and Roberta knew it. I didn't kick her ... but I wanted to ... Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb" (451).4 It is the same truth Roberta arrives at when she tells Twyla at the end: "I really did think she was black. I didn't make that up. ... But now I can't be sure. ... She'd been brought up in an institution like my mother was. ... And you were right. We didn't kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well I wanted to. I really wanted them to kick her" (452). She knows full well that "wanting to is doing it" (452). Maggie symbolizes the mothers who abandoned them, and the repressed anger the "sisters" express is directed against the failure they see in their mothers--"My mother, she never did stop dancing ... And mine, she never did get well" (453). Like the deeply pained Nel at Sula's grave, who cries out in anguish at the end of the novel, "We were girls together ... O Lord, Sula ... girl, girl, girlgirlgirl" (174), Twyla tells Roberta "We were kids," and her Other replies wistfully, "Yeah. Yeah. I know, just kids" (453). And with the same irresolution but yet completion, Roberta ends the story: "Oh, shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?" (453). Like Nel's lament, it is a cry for lost innocence moving in "circles and circles of sorrow" (174).

Though like the novels in key respects, Morrison's short story differs in its attempt to merge black and white characters. Sula and Nel, Milkman and Guitar, form powerful female and male doubles whose relationships largely depend on shared racial identities, intimate involvement in the black community, and profound awareness of racial oppression in a white-dominated culture. In them, and in all the novels, Morrison consciously resists "romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than rectifying it" (Playing in the Dark xi). Nel, Milkman, Jadine, Sethe, Joe Trace--all bear the consequences of their own choices and divided nature as well as the scars of racial hatred. In Sula, Morrison has said, "I tried to posit a situation where there was a so-called good and so-called evil people. Nel and Sula are symbolic of the situation. And of course you can't always tell which is which" (Parker 253). But whereas in the novels Morrison counterbalances black opposites, revealing how necessary Sula is to Nel or Guitar to Milkman as the "dark" other who must be accommodated to achieve an integrated self, in "Recitatif" she emphasizes the universality of seeming opposites in a unique way, dissolving binary poles and linking two girls in their mutual journey from innocence to experience--a passage in black or white.


1. See especially Schomburg's discussion of other sibling relationships in Morrison's novels.

2. Abel goes on to argue that "Neither reading can account adequately for the text's contradictory linguistic evidence, for if Twyla's name is more characteristically black than white, it is perhaps best known as the name of the white dancer, Twyla Tharp, whereas Roberta shares her last name, Fisk, with a celebrated black (now integrated) university. The text's heterogeneous inscriptions of race resist a totalizing reading" (476). Goldstein-Shirley offers an even more detailed analysis of Morrison's disguising of racial identity in his essay on "Race and Response."

3. Her real name is Mrs. Itkin, surely an ironic juxtaposition of opposites: "It" and "kin."

4. One is reminded of Sula once again, in which Nel participates in the death of Chicken Little even though it is Sula who unintentionally throws him in the water. When Nel tries to deny her culpability to Eva Peace, Sula's grandmother, remarks, "You. Sula. What's the difference? You watched didn't you?" (168), a parallel to Twyla and Roberta literally or symbolically watching Maggie being kicked and allowing the "big girls" to act as surrogates enacting their unconscious desires.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. "Black Writers, White Readers: Race and Politics of Feminist Interpretation." Critical Inquiry, 19 (1993): 470-98.

Goldstein-Shirley, David. "Race and Response: Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif.'" Short Story 5 (1997): 77-86.

------. "Race/[Gender]: Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif.'" Women on the Edge: Ethnicity and Gender in the Short Stories of American Women. Ed. Corinne H. Dale and J. H. E. Paine. New York: Garland, 1999. 97-110.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. With a new Afterward by the Author. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. First published in 1970.

------. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

------. "Recitative." Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories. Ed. Clarence Major. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. 438-53.

------. Sula. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.

Parker, Bettye J. "Complexity: Toni Morrison's Women--An Interview Essay." Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Steftall. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979. 251-57.

Russell, Sandi. "It's OK to say OK." Woman's Review 5 March 1986: 22-24. Rpt. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. 43-47.

Schomburg, Connie R. "To Survive Whole, To Save the Self, The Role of Sisterhood in the Works of Toni Morrison." The Significance of Sibling Relationships in Literature. Ed. JoAnna Stephens Mink and Janet Doubler Ward. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green UP, 1993. 149-57.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420093750