Nowadays, race is considered more as an ideological or social construct rather than just a biological fact. This phenomenon is visible in many literary works. Toni Morrison, who is against all literary racism, presents in her works a new way to read American literature and enables the reader to see the hard racial truths that it contains. In her experimental short story “Recitatif” she purposely deprives her characters of their racial identity and creates ambiguity by constantly oscillating between racial codes that might apply both to black and white people. Morrison challenges the reader’s expectations and any solution that is based on stereotypes by first creating and then re-creating the characters’ racial identity. Her aim, by doing so, is to make the reader aware of the racial stereotypes, which are often contradictory.
Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” has lyrical and ironical undertones, achieved by such narrative strategies as allusions to race stereotypes, racism, perception of racial “otherness”, reversal and indirection. She plays with the reader’s expectations by many plot enigmas, language tricks and storyline gaps. She also encourages the reader to deeper engagement with the text and much closer reading. Such textual elements push the reader to solve the mysteries, fill in the gaps, and thereby complete the story. By participating in making meaning out of the text, readers experience the story on a much deeper level than they otherwise would. Furthermore, they respond on a meta-analytical level, encouraged to consider why the text’s elements influenced their responses in particular ways.
Morrison starts her story with reference to the issue of race and pretends to donate their characters and the reader with the notion of race. Two main characters – Twyla and Roberta – are eight-year-old girls who grow up in “St. Bonny’s” orphanage because their mothers could not take a proper care of them. The author makes it clear that the girls are form different ethnic background. In the beginning of the story Twyla makes a comment “we looked like salt and pepper”, however, does not mention who was white and who was black. Even the girls’ names are misleading because both Roberta and Twyla are names usually associated with African-Americans.
On the other hand, both names have English origins, and white girls are also named by these names. In the beginning of the story we get to know how the racial difference was perceived by the girls. When Twyla gets to know that her roommate will be a girl of a different race it makes her feel sick to her stomach. She says “It was one thing to be taken out of your own bed early in the morning – it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race”. This sense of an impossible-to-cross racial divide inhibits Twyla and Roberta’s friendship throughout the whole story.
In the beginning of “Recitatif” the author gives a hint, a very misleading one, that Roberta is the one who is black. Twyla says that her mother told her that “they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did.” A white reader instinctively makes an assumption that Roberta is black because according to a well-known stereotype black people are those who “smell funny”. However, white people often forget that for black people the whites are those who actually “smell funny”. The quoted passage is also misleading because Twyla’s mother might have been talking about children raised in an orphanage, who are not bathed properly and consequently smelling “funny”.
When the girls’ mothers are presented to the reader it does not get any easier to decide who is white and who is African-American. Twyla describes Roberta’s mother as follows: “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.” This description suggests a stereotypical black person – big, wearing a huge cross and carrying a Bible. But again it might be very misleading. Not only African-Americans are associated with such image of a very religious person. It also resembles very religious white people living in the “Bible Belt” – an area in the south in which socially conservative Christian Evangelical Protestantism is a dominant part of the culture. The name is derived from a heavy emphasis on literal interpretations of the Bible in the local denominations.
Mary – Twyla’s mother, is also presented in a very ambiguous way. It is written that “she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out”. It is a common stereotype that black people generally have larger “behinds” than the whites. That is why one can assume that Mary was black. However, she might have been just a heavy white woman with a large bottom.
On the Sunday that each of the mothers come to visit and attend church with their daughters, Twyla and Roberta are reminded of their differences. Twyla’s mother is dressed inappropriately, and Roberta’s mother, looks hyper-religious with an enormous cross and a Bible. When they are introduced to each other Roberta’s mother refuses to shake Mary’s hand. Considering this situation and trying to interpret Roberta’s mother behavior, it seem very difficult to decide upon it about the race of the mothers. It is impossible to decide who is more prejudiced against who – the whites against the blacks or the opposite. Morrison, at this point, seems to be asking the reader “Who, according to you, would not shake hands with a person of a different race? An African-American or a white person?”
Some years after the girls left “St. Bonny’s” they accidentally meet at a restaurant called Howard Johnson’s where Twyla works. Here again the implication of existence of the race issue is very strong but also very ambiguous. When Twyla notices Roberta, she makes a remark about her friend that “Her own hair was so big and wild I could hardly see her face”. Because her hair was big and wild like Afro it might suggest that she was African-American. Nevertheless, at the time this episode takes place, that is 1960s/1970s, the Afro was as popular hairstyle among the blacks as among the whites.
In the same episode the readers are given another racial implications. Roberta tells Twyla that she and her friends are on their way to see Jimi Hendrix. Roberta claims that “He’s only the biggest”. Jimi Hendrix was a famous African-American guitarist, who during his life was more popular among the black people. That is why the reader may be inclined to perceive Roberta as a black fan of Hendrix. However, Roberta might as well be white because of the diverse audience of Jimi Hendrix’s band which was an interracial band. Additionally, Morrison makes a point of letting the reader know that Twyla has no idea who Jimi Hendrix is. Again, this might suggest that Twyla is white, since most young black people during this era knew who he was, however, she could just be an uninformed girl, not interested in rock and roll.
In the next part of the story, some years later, we are introduced to Twyla’s husband’s family. We get to know that it was big and loud and that “his grandmother is a porch swing”. Such description of a family might indicate that it was an African-American family, hence the reader might assume that Twyla is black. Apart from that, she lives in working-class neighborhood and she is not very rich. That is another stereotype about black people that they are the ones who are lower in the social hierarchy and are associated with the working class. It is a very negative stereotype, which often does not have anything to do with the reality.
In the same episode of the story Twyla and Roberta meet at a check-out line of Food Emporium store. Twyla describes Roberta as “dressed to kill. Diamonds on her hand, a smart white summer dress.” and that “her huge hair was sleek now, smooth around a small, nicely shaped head. Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery rich”. It is also said that she has a limousine and a chauffer. Such description can apply both to a white woman or an African-American. However, a common stereotype is that the black people tend to ostentatiously present their jewelry as well as their wealth. A slang term “bling-bling”, which refers to exterior manifestation of wealth is typical of African-American culture. On the other hand, it is an oversimplification, and such image is also present among rich white people.
It is also said about Roberta that she lives in a posh district of Newburgh called Annandale. Twyla says about her: “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”. This passage is very ambiguous. It might imply Roberta’s African-American origins because of the 1970s government’s policy by means of which minorities asserted their rights to equal opportunity for employment and quality education. At that time the number of black doctors and lawyers highly increased. There was also many black IT specialists. As a consequence, the number of very rich black families also increased. White Americans started to be jealous of the alleged privileging of the blacks. At that time in created animosity against African-Americans, which might explain Twyla’s hostile attitude towards Roberta. On the other hand, it might be just the opposite when we assume that Roberta is white. Twyla, being than black, might have been jealous of the alleged privileged position of native white Americans.
The next time Twyla and Roberta meet is at the time of a “racial strife”. In the late 1960s and in the beginning of the 1970s “desegregation bussing” became a very controversial practice of remedying past racial discrimination in American public schools. The aim of busing children to schools in a different area of the district was to create “racially balanced” schools. In this episode of the story Twyla and Roberta meet at a picket. Roberta is picketing the fact that her children are being sent to another school. Twyla says that her son is also being moved, nevertheless, she says it shouldn’t matter. Trying to interpret this situation the reader might be lead to believe that Roberta is white because she is the opponent of the busing. At that time, it was generally white people who were against this practice. They were claiming that children were being bused to schools in dangerous neighborhoods, compromising their education and safety. On the other hand, Roberta might as well have been black and be opposed to the bussing simply because of the increased distance to the school.
One of the very significant characters of “Recitatif” is Maggie – a figure of racial ambiguity. She is a mute, bowlegged kitchen woman at St. Bonny’s orphanage. Important thing that Twyla says about her is that she was “sandy-colored” but at the time of her being in the orphanage she had assumed that Maggie was white. Later, when the women meet at the picket, Roberta suggests to Twyla that Maggie was black, saying: “You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground”. Twyla does not seem to be as concerned about the fact of kicking Maggie, as about the color of her skin. Her thoughts perfectly demonstrate it: “What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black.” She replies Roberta that “She wasn’t black”.
Maggie’s color seems very important for the story as it becomes almost an obsession with Twyla. At her son’s graduation, when she did not encounter Roberta there, she rationalizes her lack of concern about the kicking of Maggie as she reflects on her argument with Roberta a years before. “It didn’t trouble me much what she had said to me in the car. I mean the kicking part. I know I didn’t do that, I couldn’t do that”.
Then her thoughts return to Maggie’s color: “But I was puzzled by her telling me Maggie was black. When I thought about it I actually couldn’t be certain. She wasn’t pitch-black, I knew, or I would have remembered that. (…) 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”. But Roberta wasn’t sure about Maggie’s color either, and at their last meeting a couple of years later, Roberta admits it: “Listen to me. I really did think she was black. I didn’t make that up. I really thought so. But now I can’t be sure”. Maggie’s significance is confirmed when in the last sentence of the story Roberta cries out: “What the hell happened to Maggie?”
Through the trick in her story, Morrison calls the readers to reconsider their own reading of racial codes and prejudices. She reveals the relativity of all racial stereotypes. The trick that Morrison uses centers on the childish naivity and the cunning ambiguity in the presentation of characters as well as the simple tone of the story. She deprives her characters and the readers of the racial codes and signs and brings the arbitrariness of the race issue into question. The readers end up questioning their previous judgments and associations about race. “Recitatif” proves to be a noteworthy experiment which is “toying” with the reader’s emotions and effectively noting racial stereotypes and their characteristics.
In her work of literary criticism “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” Morrison shows how language imposes stereotypes in literary works of classic American authors. In “Recitatif” she gives clues about racial identity of her characters and consequently forces the readers to consider the usual ways in which race is presented in literature. The best conclusion of this essay is a fragment of “Playing in the Dark” which follows: “I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work.
My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains. (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.)”