Feminist/Queer Theory

race and Feminism in “Recitatif”


“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison is a wonderful work that challenges how perceptions can change our reactions to people and situations. It takes place in the 1950s and follows two women as their lives cross paths every so often. We get to see glimpses into their lives and their struggles. The only constant is their confusion and ours. We never get a clear picture of either character’s race; readers are left to draw their own conclusions that could change throughout the reading. Each of these women follows their own paths through life, doing what they think brings them joy, and doing what is expected of them as well. Both of these women become trapped in their lives, knowing that they could be more.

When we are first introduced to the characters Roberta and Twyla, we are told that Twyla felt uncomfortable and that her mother would not want her sleeping in a room with someone from another race. From this point on we know that they come from different backgrounds and have different expectations placed on them. No matter the reader, their races will always be a topic of discussion:“However, not all critics argue that race is unknowable in ‘Récitatif’” (Morris). Depending on who they decide is white or Black can change the view of the entire story. But their race is not the only defining characteristic; these two characters are both women growing up in the 1950s-70s. They grow up in a time that has many controversial moments for women and women’s rights.

In this era women were told to be subservient to men, to strive to be the best wife they could be. They were told that it is better to be quiet and helpful than to be loud and exciting. Nothing they said was taken too seriously; rape allegations and other serious issues were swept under the rug, considered nonissues compared to the problems of business and men. In “Recitatif “we see instances of this misogyny throughout the story. One line in particular was glossed over, as narrator Twyla tells the reader that the older girls were just “poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us” (Morrison 2). Even at the early age of around eight, she knew the struggles of those older girls. Struggles that no one should be subjected to, but that were swept under the rug.

As the girls grow up, meeting over time, we get to see how they each tackled the world. Twyla followed the path that was laid out for her. She worked as a waitress, one of the only guaranteed jobs for a woman. She worked odd times at inconvenient distances, for little pay. Roberta shows up with her exciting outfit and stylish big hair, she was everything fun in the world. Yet again these two characters show the reader the two sides to womanhood. On one side of the coin is the overworked, tired, and out of the loop woman. The woman who is trying to do everything as the world tells her to. Twyla saw what the world did to her dancing mother and wanted to play by the rules. But Roberta saw her mother, sick and overweight, and wanted instead to take her life into her own hands.

Their lives progressed like this, Twyla following the set path for a woman at the time. She married a man who liked her cooking and gave him a son. Roberta also married, but she married a widower with children of his own. They both took two different paths to get there, but they both arrived at marriage and children. That path seemed set in stone for them: It was the natural progression. Birth, childhood, marriage, mothering. There may be some gaps, but each of those steps seemed guaranteed for Twyla and Roberta.

There is more to being a woman than getting married and having children; there is something more important that was in the background of this short story: feminism. Feminism is defined as the advocacy for women’s right to be a man’s equal. Feminism means so much more and encompasses so many more layers than that. That definition assumes that all women were already equal. But that was and is not the case. Jean Wyatt tells us that in order for feminism to help everyone, everyone needs to stand on the same ground in the fight. Before women can be equal to men, they first need to be equal amongst themselves. Until racial boundaries can be erased, gender gaps will always exist. But these boundaries are also important. We do not want to lose our individuality and unique cultures, but understanding each other and learning to accept those differences it’s what is truly important. After all, “if one does not identify with the cultural other to some degree, does not make the conceptual leap to stand in her shoes, how can one be in a position to hear her point of view, to perceive things from her perspective?” (Wyatt) “Recitatif” helps us to understand that concept, and to answer that question, better. By leaving the race of each girl a mystery for us to fill in we can view each of their stories through many lenses.

A reading of the story where Twyla is Black will lead to an understanding of being beaten down and stuck in place. Twyla herself seems accepting of the fact that that is her place in life. She is just grateful that she doesn’t dance like her mother, she has been pushed down and struggled her whole life. Never truly knowing how to be happy if someone else was not prompting her. To the extent, we can see, through her eyes, that a white Roberta got to be free to explore in her twenties. She could spend time with men and travel to see popular musicians, marry into riches and use her voice to fight for her and her family’s rights. Although, if this were flipped, the reader could see a white Twyla living the white picket fence life. She gets the family she wanted and has no worries. She knows that the government is making the best choices they can on where her boy needs to go to school. Roberta as Black shows that there were no expectations for her. She didn’t get a job, maybe because no one would hire her. Yes, she married up into a rich section of town, but she fought for her place. She changed herself completely in order to fit her new status. Her big curly hair was smoothed down to mimic white hair. She had to fight for her kids’ right to attend a close-by school.

These women, in either reading, are showing us each side of the feminist struggle. They are both struggling to break free from the expectations that women are placed into, becoming a person who knows their value, and fighting with others to get recognized for that work. In “Recitatif” we see each of these characters with male friends, spouses, and family. Each of these situations shapes their perceptions of what they are. Twyla, in getting the family that she grew up looking for, finds what seems like the perfect place for her. She is able to cook the foods that she never got, be the mother she wanted, and make sure that her children have the father she never saw. But those are all things to do for others, and in her story, they are specifically done for men. She cooks food that her husband, son, and father-in-law like. In one instance she is buying groceries and instead of buying ice cream because she wanted it or thought it would be a fun treat, she buys it because her “father-in-law ate them with the same gusto little Joseph did” (Morrison). In contrast, Roberta, despite following the same path to marriage and children, is full of passion and takes charge of her own life.

These two women, living their different lives, are both fighting to be heard and seen. They started as eight-year-old girls, both hoping to go back home to their mothers. Their mothers tried their best, despite their difficult circumstances. Both know that their mothers have issues but love them anyway. Their mothers are their ties into “their cultural and ethnic identities” (Androne). They grow into their early twenties, making their own place in the world, earning their place and exploring who they are. They become mothers, either by giving birth or by marrying a man with children. They fight for what they believe in, each on their own side. But in the end, what they need is someone to listen to them. Their friendship, the friendship of two women who lived tough lives, is key to this short story. They find power to move forward; they drive each other to be more than they were. That is what feminism does: It helps women to rise to their potential. Twyla is able to break out of her cycle of living for her husband; she is able to do something that she wanted to for no other reason.

In “Recitatif “Morrison shows us that women, regardless of race, have struggles. But that they can rise beyond them. They can challenge each other to fight back against the roles assigned to them. That women are not defined by the birth, childhood, marriage, kids path. While that is an admirable path, Morrison reminds al women to make sure to fight for our own wants and needs. If that means, like Roberta and Twyla, we must protest injustice that affects us, so be it. If that means going to concerts or waitressing, so be it. Whatever our path, we must choose it and push ourselves and other women to become the people we want to be.

Works Cited

Androne, Helane Adams. “Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ and Viramontes’s ‘Tears on My Pillow.’” MELUS, vol. 32, no. 2, 2007, pp. 133–50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029727. Accessed 28 Apr. 2022.

Morris, Susana M. “‘Sisters Separated for Much Too Long’: Women’s Friendship and Power in Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 2013, pp. 159–80, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43653369. Accessed 28 Apr. 2022.

Wyatt, Jean. “Toward Cross‐Race Dialogue: Identification, Misrecognition, and Difference in Feminist Multicultural Community.” Signs, vol. 29, no. 3, 2004, pp. 879–903, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/380629. Accessed 28 Apr. 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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