Essay, Research Paper: Recitatif By Toni Morrison

Literature: Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison’s essay, “Recitatif” is about two girls, Twyla and Roberta,
who grow up in an orphanage because their mothers could not properly care for
them. The underlying theme in “Recitatif” deals with racism. An interesting
twist is the mystery of the girls’ race. Leaving clues, but never stating
whether Twyla or Roberta was black or white, Morrison makes it clear that the
girls come from different ethnic backgrounds. At one point in the essay Twyla
comments, “that we looked like salt and pepper.” Due to the fact that the
story is told in the first person, it seems natural for the reader to associate
Twyla with himself/herself. “Recitatif” proves to be a noteworthy
experiment, “toying” with the reader’s emotions and effectively noting
stereotypical races and their characteristics. Morrison never states the race of
the girls for a purpose: to make the reader form his/her own opinion. The story
begins with Twyla’s mother dropping her off at the orphanage. There she met
Roberta, who became her best friend, bonding because they were not real orphans
with “beautiful dead parents in the sky.” Instead of being “real”
orphans, they were just abandoned kids whose mother’s did not want them.
Although the girls had few friends, their lives did not lack adventure. For
example, they enjoyed spying on the big girls who liked to smoke and dance, and
sadly got a laugh out of yelling mean things at Maggie, the woman who couldn’t
defend herself because she was mute. One of the last times the girls saw each
other in the orphanage was the day of the picnic. Shortly after the picnic
Roberta’s mother came to take her home, marking the first small fracture in
their friendship. The next time they saw each other was years later in the
restaurant that Twyla worked. Roberta acts coldly towards Roberta partly because
she was high off of drugs, on her way to see a Jimi Hendrix concert. Twyla was
deeply offended that her former best friend would treat her so badly. Twelve
years later they meet again at a grocery store. Roberta married a rich man and
was now called Mrs. Benson; she was dressed in dimonds and talked much nicer to
Twyla. By this time, Twyla has one child and Roberta has four. Strangely,
Roberta acts extremely friendly, like she has met her long lost best friend.
Twyla can’t hold back her emotions and questions Roberta about their last
encounter at the restaurant. Roberta shrugs it off, “Oh, Twyla, you know how
it was in those days: black—white. You know how everything was.” A friendly
goodbye and the women go their own separate ways again. The third time they meet
is at the school where Roberta’s kids attend. Roberta and the other mothers
were picketing because they didn’t want their kids to be segregated. This led
to a fight that would be not resolved until Twyla and Roberta meet for a final
time, severing any last chance of friendship for the women. The problem lies
inside the hearts of two special women, two childhood friends, and two different
races. “Recitatif” challenges the reader to not be judgmental toward of the
either girls and accept their color. Morrison gives clues to encourage the
reader to make assumptions about the girls’ race. From the beginning the
author asserts that one girl is black and one is white, but not which is which.
There are many instances that Morrison uses things that are stereotypically
“black” or “white,” almost begging one to infer the race of each girl.
Although there is no answer to the mystery, what one decides for himself/herself
says something about his/her own ethnic background. Morrison thrives off the
stereotypes people have set for blacks and whites. For example, Twyla’s mother
told her that “those” people smelled funny because they didn’t wash their
hair. This might suggest that Roberta was black because many black people
don’t wash their hair often. On the other hand she could have been talking
about the orphans not bathing properly which could cause them to smell
“funny.” Everything seems to be a gray area. On the night of the picnic when
her mother came to visit, Twyla was embarrassed because her mother was wearing
“those tight green slacks that made her butt stick out.” Many people have
labeled blacks as generally having larger behinds then whites, so Morrison may
have had this sort of implication in mind. Twyla’s mother, therefore, could
have been black. Of course, she could have been a heavy white woman with a large
“butt.” During the picnic Roberta’s mother “had brought chicken legs and
ham sandwiches and oranges and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta
drank milk from a thermos while her mother read the bible to her.” Twyla
notices the chicken legs not being eaten. She later states, “The wrong food is
always with the wrong people, maybe that is why I got into waitress work
later—to match the right food up with the right people. Some people have said
that black people seem to like chicken more than white people, which would imply
that Twyla is black due to how upset she was about the wasted chicken. Then
again not all black people like chicken and Twyla may have also just been hungry
for chicken at the time. When they met at the restaurant that Twyla works at
Roberta was rude and distant. At the restaurant Roberta was accompanied by two
other men. Twyla mentions that “her hair was so big and wild I could hardly
see her face.” However she did recognize her. The fact that her hair was big
and wild like an Afro could indicate that she was black because blacks sometimes
have “big” hair. However, the time period of the story is the 1970’s and
the Afro was a common hairstyle, meaning that any one could have worn their hair
that way. Also while they were at the restaurant, Roberta tells Twyla that she
is on the way to see Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix was an infamous black guitarist. The
reader might be lead to believe that Roberta is black because she was a Hendrix
“groupie.” However Jimi Hendrix’s band was an interracial band with a very
diverse audience. Therefore, Roberta may have been white due to the diverse
audience. As the story ends it doesn’t give the reader a sense of closure
because there is still a question of which girl is white or which is black.
Because of this uneasiness that the reader feels it is proof that race is
important to the reader.
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