Childhood Experiences and the Development of Identity in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

Faith Cornell

Undoubtedly, due to the complex nature of personality, no two people are alike. What makes each person unique extends beyond innate traits. According to psychological theorist Eric Erickson, personality develops through a series of psychosocial stages, characterized by conflict or crisis arising from social environments. These stages occur through the developmental years and into adulthood. Ideally, healthy outcomes result from these tests. However, occurrences and situations, such as adverse childhood experiences, unhealthy relationships, unsafe physical environments, and socioeconomic status, negatively affect development. Not only do these factors influence temperament, but also cognition. Through her short story, “Recitatif”, Toni Morrison explores how the experiences and backgrounds of two girls growing up during the civil rights era, shape their actions and beliefs throughout their youth and adulthood, demonstrating the lasting impact of social and cultural influences on social-emotional and cognitive development.

Healthy psychological development depends critically on the early years of a person’s life, as outlined by Eric Erickson in his Psychological Development Theory. Each stage tests whether a person’s sense of identity develops healthily or leads to feelings of inadequacy or confusion. Over half of these phases occur from birth until late adolescence, making these early years the most important for development (McConnell, 1966). What children face and witness may positively or, unfortunately, negatively impact them. For example, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), or any exposure to abusive, neglectful, or dysfunctional situations, directly affect childhood development and behavior. Appropriate attitudes and actions go unlearned without positive role models or proper care (Wang et al. 2020).

Throughout “Recitatif”, Twyla describes aspects of her childhood with Roberta, yet without her narrative, the girls’ challenges remain excellently established by the story’s opening line: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s” (Morrison 1). St. Bonny’s houses orphaned girls, and although no mention of the characters’ fathers exists, the orphanage temporarily watches Twyla and Roberta during their mothers’ incompetence through their prolonged illness and dancing, likely erotic. These situations cause neglect and may even expose Twyla to sexual assault, thereby contributing to the girls’ adverse childhood experiences. Twyla also faces malnourishment, as implied by the event of her and her mother, Mary, eating only Twyla’s jelly beans after an Easter service as they watch Roberta eat a full-course meal her mother provided. St. Bonny’s also provides little to eat, but Twyla enjoys the food. She compares her mother’s cooking to the orphanage food, thinking, “Mary’s idea of supper was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo. Hot mashed potatoes and two weenies was like Thanksgiving for me” (Morrison 2). Another aspect putting the girls’ development at risk is the people at St. Bonny’s. The caretaker, Mrs. Itkin, talks condescendingly, such as the time she says, “Good. Maybe then she’ll come and take you home”, after Twyla complained her mom would not like having her rooming with Roberta (Morrison 1). The teenagers, called the “gar girls”, also belittle and shove around the younger girls.

Throughout Twyla’s narration of her time at St. Bonny’s, there are behaviors and traits she and Roberta exhibit attributed to their ACEs. “We…got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher” (Morrison 2). Insufficient development explains the behavior issues of distracted minds and an unreliable memory. “Environmental Stimulation, Parental Nurturance and Cognitive Development in Humans” connects issues in cognitive development to a lack of parental nurturance or any other reasons for stress and unhealthy experiences (Farah et al. 2008). A second behavioral problem the girls share could not only be from a lack of nurturance but also from the toxic teenagers at the orphanage. The older, pushy girls enjoy ridiculing the disabled cook, Maggie; and later, Twyla and Roberta join, calling her insulting names such as “dummy” and “bow legs” (Morrison 3).  Even without the negative influence of the gar girls, the little to no demonstrations of love from the adults at the orphanage contribute to this sort of misbehavior.

Aside from ACEs, other aspects that determine the girls’ temperament are settings and socioeconomic status. A child’s home and neighborhood are considered the most “influential, immediate setting in which primary caregiver’s parenting and family interactions” impact child development (Wang et al. 2020). Socioeconomics also matters due to the link between status and cognitive growth. Children can only advance well with access to proper food and education, even with caregivers willing to nurture them (Farah et al. 2008). Twyla narrates little on St. Bonny’s physical environment besides the uncrowded rooms, available meals, accessible education, and a beautiful orchard. Aside from the smoking teenagers who roughhouse, no other threats to the girls’ safety exist. The only dangerous environment for Twyla is her home. The text never mentions where Mary dances, but if she ever takes her work home, she places her daughter in a risky situation. Also, Twyla and Roberta come from opposite socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, something influencing their treatment and opportunities. Twyla reflects on how kids called her and Roberta “salt and pepper” (Morrison 1), but there is no mention of who is white and African American.

Upon first meeting her orphanage roommate, Roberta, Twyla tells Mrs. Itkin, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here” (Morrison 1). Afterward, she wonders if Roberta assumes Twyla’s mother disapproves of her daughter staying at an orphanage. However, what prompted Twyla’s comment is Mary claiming people racially opposite of her smell strange and never wash their hair. Looking at Roberta, Twyla thinks Mary is right. Soon, however, Twyla looks beyond her and Roberta’s physical differences, enjoying their friendship. As they age, however, their political views damage their harmony. The two women compete in sign wars during protests after Roberta tells her she should be bothered by the school district’s plan to integrate students, something Twyla supports (Morrison 14-17).

“Recitatif” ends with the main characters well into their adulthood, a time in their lives when their identities are established, according to Erickson. Twyla’s mindset reflects the desire to be better than Mary. Her husband is not rich like Roberta’s, and her waitressing job earns only the minimum wage, but Twyla never involves herself in sex work. Her son Joseph receives the proper nurturance his mother lacked as a child. Twyla homeschools when schools temporarily shut down and she protests for children’s rights so Joseph may not be separated from children opposite of him. Meanwhile, Roberta finds her identity in her mother’s prejudice and the cruelty of the gar girls. The gar girls kicked Maggie once, and Roberta falsely accuses Twyla of being the culprit. Eventually, she confesses to Twyla that she wishes she had hurt Maggie herself. It is unclear if Roberta’s motives for wishing harm on Maggie were racially motivated, as she remembers her as black, or due to her worry of ending up like Maggie. She tells Twyla, “She’d been brought up in an institution like my mother was and like I thought I would be too”, indicating her fear (Morrison 19). Maggie’s skin color remains as mysterious as the ethnicities of the other characters, a detail neither Twyla nor Roberta remembers.

The girls’ faulty memory could be the effects of a lack of proper parental nurturance from their incompetent mothers, if not repressed as a coping mechanism induced by their experiences with the orphanage bullies. The socioeconomic statuses and adverse childhood experiences of parental figures and St. Bonny’s in Twyla and Roberta’s childhood not only hinder their ability to learn and focus in school and behave appropriately, but also shape their identities and social and political viewpoints later throughout adulthood. Despite their differences not interfering with their friendship as children, the racial tensions between the girls’ mothers follow them into their adulthood, making them argue over classroom diversity and Maggie’s race. Roberta follows in the rest of her mother’s footsteps; however, Twyla follows a primarily new and healthy path instead. The women these young girls grow into highlight the lasting influence of caregivers and life circumstances present throughout early development.

Works Cited

Farah, Martha J., et al. “Environmental Stimulation, Parental Nurturance and Cognitive Development in Humans.” Developmental Science, vol. 11, no. 5, Sept. 2008, pp. 793–801. EBSCOhost, Accessed 26 April 2023.

McConnell, Theodore A. “The Course to Adulthood.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 5, no. 3, 1966, pp. 239–51. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2023.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif”, Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.1983. . Accessed 26 April 2023.

Wang, Dan, et al. “Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Adolescent Outcomes: Mediated through Adverse Childhood Experiences and Parenting Stress.” Journal of Youth & Adolescence, vol. 49, no. 10, Oct. 2020, pp. 2160–73. EBSCOhost, Accessed 26 April 2023.


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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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