Deconstructing Race in “Recitatif”


The one, glaring question we all have when reading “Recitatif” is: which character is which race? There are many context clues given by Morrison in the story, but in most circumstances, these clues cannot be used to determine the race of either girl in the story because of the ambiguousness of the specificities she gives us. This essay’s purpose is not to determine which character is which race; but to discuss the contradictions that arise in the context and descriptions of each character.

We are first introduced to Roberta and Twyla when they are eight years old and are “dumped” (Morrison 2) at St. Bonaventure shelter. Twyla often comments that they “weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky” (Morrison 2). Our first clues to which girl is which race appears in the first page of the story. Twyla’s mother preferred to dance to caring for her daughter, and Roberta’s mother was sick. When the two girls are introduced, Twyla thinks to herself that she is unhappy to be placed in a room with a girl of another race, and remembers her mother saying, “they never wash their hair and they smell funny” (Morrison 1). These context clues are not enough to place either character in either category. A neglectful mother or a sick one do not denote race. In both cultures, there is commentary akin to this about hair. Twyla’s first comment can be taken in many ways. Would her mother be upset that she was put in a room with a girl of another race, or would she be upset that Twyla was put in a dirty, dank room, and the race of Roberta was merely what she saw and thought about first?

In Elizabeth Abel’s piece, “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and The Politics of Feminist Interpretation”, she points out that in this first section of the book, “The racial ambiguity so deftly installed at the narrative’s origin through codes that function symmetrically for black women and for white women intensifies as the story tracks the encounter of its two female protagonists over approximately thirty years” (Abel 1-2). This racial ambiguity is also present in both character’s mothers. Where Twyla’s mother is beautiful but self-centered, Roberta’s mother is large, wears a large cross, and carries a bible. Mary also has a habit of drawing out the syllables and vowels of her daughter’s name, following it with “baby”, and forgets to bring her food for lunch. Roberta’s mother is attentive and feeds her daughter well while reading to her from the bible.

It is possible that we may think of Roberta’s mother as a black woman, someone who was ill and therefore simply unable to care for her daughter. She seems loving and nurturing and religious in a stern but soft way, feeding and caring for her daughter where she can. It is also possible to think of Twyla’s mother as a black woman, someone who dances all night without a care in the world, who has a drawl and is not terribly bright, leaning into the racism of the day in which the story was written. However, we tend to think of big, strong women who love Jesus as black women because of the media we consume and the way the black woman has been portrayed as a mother figure; and we also tend to think of wispy thin women that ride on the back of other’s kindness as white.

Abel comments that while she was certain that Twyla was white, the person who introduced her to the story was sure that she was black. Wanting an answer to her question, she contacted Morrison and asked. She reports that Morrison did not have a direct answer to her question but did make a few pointed comments on how her “project in this story was to substitute class for racial codes” (Abel 7). Abel finds that examining the class of both women throughout the flashes of their lives that we are made privy to seems to point in the direction of Twyla’s whiteness, but we can never know for sure.

What I think gets missed is Morrison’s desire for us to read this piece with the awareness that we all assume race based on class. Twyla ends up working class, and Roberta marries a man who is a part of the middle class. In the time in which the story is set, our gut instinct would be to assign Twyla as black and Roberta as white, solely based on the fact that Twyla must work harder than Roberta, and because Twyla remarks later, “Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world” (Morrison 9). Roberta feels more carefree in her older years, even as a young adult, meeting Twyla again for the first time in years where Twyla was waitressing while she sits in a booth with two bearded men. Roberta is described as wearing large hoops and having big hair (which could be a sign of either race in the time of Hendrix), while Twyla makes a faux pas when she pretends to know who Hendrix is, probably due to the fact that her life was hard work and little play. It is hard to say here where each clue points. Jimi Hendrix, according to Abel, was not as popular with African American people at the time as he was with white people. Both races of men wore facial hair, but black men are better at growing it. Twyla works hard, while Roberta seems to be skimming along in life without a care. Each point of interest contradicts the other, and because of this, it is impossible to determine the race of either girl, even if we used base assumptions determined by stereotypes.

In their essay, “Decoding Racial Identity of the Character in ‘Recitatif’”, Wang Li-Li concludes that “she [Morrison] illustrates how the difference between the races in American culture at large is dependent on blacks and whites defining themselves in opposition to one another” (Li-Li 1). Li-Li goes on to attempt to “decode” Morrison’s created paradox by examining their names, eventually establishing that both names are simultaneously both black and white; even going so far as to try to resolve the question as to what Twyla’s mother does when she dances all night, wondering whether that could mean she was a stripper. Most people may assume that Twyla was black simply because of her unconventional name. However, Abel argues in her journal, “…if Twyla’s name is more characteristically black than white, it is perhaps best known as the name of a white dancer, Twyla Tharp, whereas Roberta shares her last name, Fisk, with a celebrated black (now integrated) university” (Abel 7). The push and pull of each name and the weight of race it carries is impossible to decode.

Later in the story, after the meeting in Howard Johnson’s and after meeting in the grocery store years after that, the women meet again by chance while Roberta is picketing with a crowd of mothers against having her stepchildren bussed to a school outside of the neighborhood. In this scene, racial tensions run high to mirror the “racial strife” (Morrison 14) that is occurring elsewhere in the country. Twyla originally has no opinion on the change because her son didn’t seem to mind it, but after seeing and speaking with Roberta, her mind changes. When Twyla tells Roberta that it is a silly thing to worry about, Roberta tells her that it is a free country, and Twyla retorts with, “Not yet, but it will be” (Morrison 15). Twyla could be realizing here that if she is indeed black, she is not treated with the same respect as a white woman. As the women argue, Twyla begs Roberta to see the women as she does, and Roberta sees them as simply mothers. Roberta says, “I used to curl your hair” (Morrison 15). This line switches up the race of both again, because if Twyla were black, her hair would most likely already be very curly.

The conversation comes to the subject of Maggie, the “kitchen woman with legs like parentheses” (Morrison 2). Maggie comes up in quite a few of their conversations and is as racially ambiguous as both the girls. Roberta tells Twyla that she was black, and when she fell in the orchard, it was because she was pushed. When the women argue in adulthood about the school situation, Roberta insists that when Maggie was pushed, they all kicked her while she was on the ground, saying, “…you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream” (Morrison 16). When they meet for the last time in the diner where Twyla goes in to have coffee after frantically looking for a Christmas tree, Maggie arises again with Roberta when she comes in wearing a shiny evening gown. Roberta seems to be feeling as guilty as Twyla does about her. Roberta cries when she makes excuses for both of them and how they grew up. She seems to know even less than Twyla does about Maggie, and although she has such a small part in the story, suddenly the story has always been about Maggie. Maggie has been the embodiment of the two characters all along.

I would be remiss if I did not turn the lens to myself, as well. As a white woman, am I doing the work I need to be doing to understand that I know only half of this story? Even then, that would still only be true if Twyla were in fact white. If Twyla was indeed a white working-class woman, then I could understand some of her life experiences as a white working-class woman. I do not and cannot understand the situation in either case of the black person. As I first read this story, at different points, I was convinced that either girl was either race. I flip-flopped back and forth, trying to decide based on what little, if anything, I know about any other person’s life experience. I concluded that therein lay the reason that Morrison wrote this story in this particular way: to simply turn your gaze within yourself and observe how you attempted to determine the race of the girls. Most of us use the context that Morrison gives us, and we cannot guess in the end because they interweave and contradict one another until they are both and neither. The point of the story is not to try to assign race; the point is to learn about yourself and how you view the world and make the necessary corrections.

Works Cited

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

Li-Li, Wang. “Decoding racial identity of the characters in Recitatif.” US-China Foreign Language 9.12 (2011): 812-816.

Halpin, Brian F., et al. “Literature: An Exercise in Futility or the Way to Save the World?” The English Journal, vol. 95, no. 6, 2006, pp. 28–32, Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” Random House USA, 2022.





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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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