New Historical

Racial Ambiguity in A Transparent Society

Phoebe Caringella

Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif’” was originally published in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women in 1983. Her story follows the complicated relationship between two girls—Roberta and Twyla—that spans across three decades and centers on the racial strife present in the United States during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  This story stands out amongst numerous novels about interracial friendships because this unique piece does not give the readers any insight on which girl is Black and which one is white.  Instead, Morrison places a racially ambiguous character named Maggie in the center of their disputes to display the weight of cultural stereotypes within the reader’s own perception.  Her story setting sets the girls in St. Bonny’s orphanage that has an ironically broken community that is cleverly contrasted with her own tight knit one.  The historical significance of Morrison’s life, her values that she has instilled in her writings, and her touch on psychological trauma affecting children in orphanages, all contribute to her brilliant piece “Recitatif” and bring to light the belittled value and often the true version of community.

Toni Morrison’s writings have created a newfound interest in American literature. Students, scholars, and many more avid readers have directed their attention to her work dedicated to psychological trauma caused by slavery, racism, segregation, and war.  Furthermore, Morrison has been noted in biographies to use her status in the literary society as a public intellectual for exploring the ways in which racial groups affect people as well as their ideas about national identity (Li).  Fellow writer Trudier Harris wrote about Morrison’s reputation in her article stating: “Around the world, she has offered a new lens through which to view American literature and African American experience.” Toni Morrison’s expertise allows readers to see a female African American author’s views on the impact racism and prejudice have had on the black community.  During the Civil Rights Movement, Toni Morrison stayed up to date on the events but did not get involved in the protests because she believed in a different type of advocacy.  Instead of projecting the same message as Black Power–whose advocates used symbols of African authenticity–Morrison urged African Americans to rediscover strength in their families, in their communities, and within themselves (Li).  Her message to Black people was to not try to make themselves heard through the loud chants of equality and justice but to surround themselves with people they loved and respected. Unity goes beyond mere symbols because it can be shared by everyone regardless of race and social class, it is something to be shared with across the cultural and racial boundaries that people have created within society.

Morrison’s own definition of community resembles the one she grew up in where closeness between each other garnered respect from everyone in that community, in this community all had a part in raising the children and instilling that generational respect for everyone (Li). In stark contrast to Morrison’s picture of her own community, the orphanage setting in “Recitatif” is lacking the closeness of community that is reflected in the author’s own life. Within the grounds of St. Bonny’s there is no community, the children and adolescents that live in the orphanage are divided by the tense atmosphere where hostility is being bred.  The gar girls are Twyla and Roberta’s tormentors inside St. Bonny’s; the gar girls pull the girls’ hair and twist their arms if they catch either Twyla or Roberta watching them dance and smoke underneath the apple trees.  The other children throw out insults directed at Twyla and Roberta for their contrasting complexions: “So for the moment it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that’s what the other kids called us sometimes” (Morrison).  Twyla herself was sick to her stomach and against sharing a room with Roberta because of her skin tone, noting that “[i]t 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” (Morrison).  The atmosphere of St. Bonny’s was no stranger to discrimination amongst its residents; it is likely from the segregation and racism that was taught by society. Mrs. Bozo seems to have offered no love to the girls, because when she does talk sweetly and smiles at Twyla and Roberta while complimenting them, they are too stunned to move.  The sad fact is that the hostility in Catholic Institutions was not limited to settings in Toni Morrison’s well written stories.

Readers may speculate that the bitterness and hostility were spurred by current events revolving mostly around discrimination, psychological disturbances, and sexual abuse.  In connection to the historical events within this story and information on Catholic childcare institutions, the lack of community these two girls experience influenced their cognitive development. Just like the children at St. Bonny’s, these children were cast into orphanages because their parents were either unable to take care of them or they had passed away. Children often came to the institutions harboring aggression and anxiety, their frequent lashing out only stimulated more aggression from the other children. Twyla’s interactions with the other children and the Big Bozo indicate that the environment in the institution mimicked the same hostile atmospheres that were found in orphanages during the same time periods this short story takes place.  In 1955 a caseworker stated: “The ‘normal child-caring institution’… no longer exists because the children entering institutions had serious behavior and personality problems that needed to be addressed by trained psychiatric social workers” (Morton). The reader may gather that within Twyla’s narration she expresses possible psychological problems when she mentions that most of the children are “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky” (Morrison). She divulges her recurring wish that she would rather her mother be dead after her mother repeatedly embarrasses her, which is a concerning indicator about her psychological state.  It only gives value to the statement that psychiatric care was needed in these facilities and Mrs. Bozo was ill equipped for this role.

During 1983 when this short story was released, Reverend John. H. Leahy, the director of Parmadale System of Family Services, described the 221 residents living in the institution as “multi-problemed; those problems included chemical dependency, truancy, unacceptable school behavior, and delinquency; a vast majority… are at least mildly emotionally disturbed” (Morton).  Similar acts of delinquency and psychological problems can be viewed in the gar girls as well as both Twyla and Roberta. Their hostile behavior is directed towards one individual who is too weak and helpless to fight back: Maggie, the mute kitchen lady.  The account of Maggie’s fall changes each time the two women meet each other throughout the story, the reader can even speculate that Roberta’s memories of the incident get more violent from being a bystander to her and Twyla kicking Maggie.  Not only do Roberta’s stories get more violent but Maggie’s skin tone changes from sandy colored to black: “Like hell she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream” (Morrison).  Twyla becomes conflicted and grows mad over the fact that she cannot remember any of the events that Roberta is mentioning and feels that she would remember doing something so cruel.  The answer comes to Twyla in an epiphany, and it seems that Roberta shares the same sentiment upon their last meeting.

The epiphany makes Twyla realize that Maggie was her mother who danced all night.  It was within her frustration for her own mother that she wished harm upon Maggie: “Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody who could tell you anything important that you could use” (Morrison).  Maggie was just a symbol of the neglect that Twyla’s own mother inflicted upon her, she was the person who took the beating for her mother’s abandonment.  Neglect is only part of the equation to the events leading up the accusation, discrimination is the player behind the scenes.  Discrimination is not something directly mentioned within Recitatif but rather skillfully implied through bits of conversation and actions.  The children jeer at Twyla and Roberta’s interracial friendship, Twyla talks about Roberta “smelling funny” (Morrison), and the gar girls pushing Maggie who is a mute and disabled woman. Later on, Roberta’s attitude towards Twyla in the diner is evaluated by the two who sit down for lunch, “Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was” (Morrison).  Even though no one is identified as belonging to a specific race, the girls see themselves as belonging to a group and allow the discrimination to infiltrate the friendship that they had built in rebellion of such labels.

Toni Morrison made it impossible to figure out which girl is Black and which one is white, and she creates Maggie who could be easily identified as either Black or white.  Therefore, she creates ambiguous characters because the racial ambiguity of these girls was intended to cause readers to engage in the story rather than base their opinions on race or racial tension. An article written on Toni Morrison’s writing style goes further to point out why she places these details in her stories: “Morrison’s experiment succeeds in inviting the reader to examine the reading process by seeing our own interest in fixing racial identity in relationship to the concern to fix Maggie’s identity” (Bennett).  The strain that racism puts on Twyla and Roberta’s friendship and the stereotypes surrounding their characters put in perspective the way readers use the perception of one’s race to determine their own conviction. Not only does Morrison’s writing point out the importance of looking at how each person looks at race individually, but it points out the lack of community people have with each other because of their tendency to racially profile. Within this short story, Twyla and Roberta created a bond from a common experience independent of race and it shows in Roberta’s reconciliation with her friend: “And you were right. We didn’t kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her. I said we did it, too” (Morrison).  They were both two very young girls who were handed over to an orphanage filled with hurt children who resorted to hurting each other.

Racial strife during the ‘60s to the ‘80s and a picture of the psychological trauma within Catholic Orphanages are arguably the two most defining historical aspects of Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif.”  Toni Morrison saw literature as a tool she could use to showcase history, carried from person to person in story form so that it could “nurture and critique community life” (Li).  In an interview Toni Morrison was asked about her desired response from readers and she answered with this: “I don’t want to give my readers something to swallow. I want to give them something to feel and think about, and I hope that I set it up in such a way that it is a legitimate thing, and a valuable thing” (McKay).  Because of Toni Morrison’s strategic move to create racially ambiguous characters, readers can see the sickly nature of racism and discrimination by looking at their own tendency to place labels upon both girls. Inside “Recitatif “they can see the importance of community and how they–just like Twyla and Roberta–are guilty of trying to figure out the race of another based on stereotypes that are cleverly ambiguous; it almost causes a headache to try to figure the two girls out.  Toni Morrison’s focus is to challenge the reader to see their own tendency to place a label upon another and then to show it to others.

Works Cited

Bennett, Juda. “Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, p. 205., doi:10.2307/2903253.

Harris, Trudier. “Toni Morrison: Solo Flight Through Literature Into History.” World Literature Today, vol. 68, no. 1, 1994, p. 9., doi:10.2307/40149836.

Li, Stephanie. Toni Morrison: a Biography : A Biography, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Morrison, Toni, and Nellie McKay. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 24, no. 4, 1983, p. 413., doi:10.2307/1208128.

Morton, Marian J. “The Transformation of Catholic Orphanages: Cleveland, 1851-1996.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 88, no. 1, 2002, pp. 65–89.,


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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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