Dichotomies in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'

Opposites and Opposition

Two eggs, one white, one brown.
Image courtesy of James Jordan.

The short story, "Recitatif," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison 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 (for instance, "Sweetness," excerpted from her 2015 novel, God Help the Child).

The two main characters of the story, Twyla and Roberta, come from different races.

One is black, the other white. Morrison allows us to see the intermittent conflicts between them, from the time they're children to the time they're adults. Some of those conflicts seem to be influenced by their racial differences, but interestingly, Morrison never identifies which girl is black and which is white.

It can be tempting, at first, to read this story as a sort of brain teaser challenging us to determine the "secret" of each girl's race. But to do so is to miss the point and to reduce a complex and powerful story into nothing more than a gimmick.

Because if we don't know each character's race, we're forced to consider other sources of the conflict between the characters, including, for example, socioeconomic differences and each girl's lack of familial support. And to the extent that the conflicts do seem to involve race, they raise questions about how people perceive differences rather than suggesting anything intrinsic about one race or another.

"A Whole Other Race"

When she first arrives at the shelter, Twyla is disturbed by being moving to a "strange place," but she is more disturbed by being placed with "a girl from a whole other race." Her mother has taught her racist ideas, and those ideas seem to loom larger for her than the more serious aspects of her abandonment.

But she and Roberta, it turns out, have a lot in common. Neither does well in school. They respect each other's privacy and don't pry. Unlike the other "state kids" in the shelter, they don't have "beautiful dead parents in the sky." Instead, they've been "dumped" -- Twyla because her mother "dances all night" and Roberta because her mother is sick. Because of this, they are ostracized by all the other children, regardless of race.

Other Sources of Conflict

When Twyla sees that her roommate is "from a whole other race," she says, "My mother wouldn't like you putting me in here." So when Roberta's mother refuses to meet Twyla's mother, it's easy to imagine her reaction as a comment on race as well.

But Roberta's mother is wearing a cross and carrying a Bible. Twyla's mother, in contrast, is wearing tight slacks and an old fur jacket. Roberta's mother might very well recognize her as a woman "who dances all night."

Roberta hates the shelter food, and when we see the generous lunch her mother packs, we can imagine that she's accustomed to better food at home. Twyla, on the other hand, loves the shelter food because her mother's "idea of supper was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo." Her mother packs no lunch at all, so they eat jellybeans from Twyla's basket.

So, while the two mothers may differ in their racial background, we can also conclude that they differ in their religious values, their morals, and their philosophy on parenting. Struggling with an illness, Roberta's mother may be particularly appalled that Twyla's healthy mother would squander a chance to take care of her daughter. All of these differences are perhaps more salient because Morrison refuses to give the reader any certainty regarding race.

As young adults, when Robert and Twyla encounter each other at the Howard Johnson's, Roberta is glamorous in her skimpy make-up, big earrings, and heavy make-up that makes "the big girls look like nuns." Twyla, on the other hand, is the opposite in her opaque stockings and shapeless hairnet.

Years later, Roberta tries to excuse her behavior by blaming it on race.

"Oh, Twyla," she says, "you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was." But Twyla remembers blacks and whites mixing freely at the Howard Johnson's during that time period. The real conflict with Roberta seems to come from the contrast between "a small-town country waitress" and a free spirit on her way to see Hendrix and determined to appear sophisticated.

Finally, the gentrification of Newburgh highlights the characters' class conflict. Their meeting comes in a new grocery store designed to capitalize on the recent influx of wealthy residents. Twyla is shopping there "just to see," but Roberta is clearly part of the store's intended demographic.

No Clear Black and White

When "racial strife" comes to Newburgh over proposed bussing, it drives the biggest wedge yet between Twyla and Roberta. Roberta watches, immovable, as the protestors rock Twyla's car. Gone are the old days, when Roberta and Twyla would reach for each other, pull each other up, and defend each other from the "gar girls" in the orchard.

But the personal and the political become hopelessly entwined when Twyla insists on making protest posters that depend entirely on Roberta's. "AND SO DO CHILDREN," she writes, which makes sense only in light of Roberta's sign, "MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!"

Finally, Twyla's protests become painfully cruel and directed solely at Roberta. "IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?" her sign asks one day. It's a terrible jab at a "state kid" whose mother never recovered from her illness.

Yet it's also a reminder of the way Roberta snubbed Twyla at the Howard Johnson's, where Twyla inquired sincerely about Roberta's mother, and Roberta cavalierly lied that her mother was fine.

Was desegregation about race? Well, obviously. And is this story about race? I'd say yes. But with the racial identifiers purposely indeterminate, readers have to reject Roberta's oversimplified excuse that that's "how everything was" and dig a little deeper to the causes of conflict.