Reader Response

Perceiving Racial Inferences in “Recitatif”

Kayley Dodd

Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif” captures the time period that the story is set in during the civil rights movement era. The story guides the reader to form their own perceptions through the societal influences that have shaped one’s ideas pertaining to race. Through clever wording throughout the narrative, the reader is directed to construct their own views as character and background information develop. The life stages of two eight year old girls are paralleled through time, initiating the assumptions that a reader may formulate. Through a society’s depictions and conventionalities associated with each race, a reader sees what they believe to be true in literature. However, Toni Morrison ingeniously exposes these preconceptions through a reader’s response in regards to psychological knowledge and ideas displayed through descriptions, imagery and social constructs.

In “Recitatif”, the foundation to constructing schemas between the character’s race and personal history evolves from the first line of the narrative. In this first line, two girls named Twyla and Roberta were introduced as children who were placed into the St. Bonaventure orphanage though they were not orphans. Twyla narrates how she was at the orphanage because her mother danced all night and Roberta was there because her mother was ill (Morrison 1). Through the parallelism of Twyla and Roberta’s journey’s, inferences were made based on their upbringings and stages of life. One of these inferences is when Twyla first met Roberta, noting her dissatisfaction by being “sick to [the] stomach” because she was in the same room with “a girl from a whole other race” (Morrison 1).  Not knowing the race of Twyla and Roberta, who were called “salt and pepper” by the orphans, posed an interesting dynamic in revealing my own ideas in regards to who they seem to be. However, “people do not look out and naturally “see” race; rather we learn from our societies and from each other how to “read” it onto the body of the other” (Moya 162). As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Morrison chooses to not reveal the race of each girl, but gives the reader an opportunity to form their own ideas from various clues.

These clues that suggest the primary characters’ ethnicities are the descriptions of their lifestyle, family members and social status. By manipulating the expected racial codes that are implied through associations, Morrison exposes the boundaries that form the consciousness in terms of racial classifications (Abel 3). It is interesting to see how the concept of a point of view resonates with the influences that society and culture has in forming it. When it comes to each of their lifestyles and perspectives, Twyla stated that the orphanage “wasn’t bad” as she was already lonely since her mom was always gone due to dancing. She even mentioned how the food served at the orphanage was good compared to what she would typically eat. Noticing how Twyla thought the “hot mashed potatoes and two weenies were like Thanksgiving” caused me to assess her very low income household, eating what she could find for sustenance. With Roberta, she wanted to leave the orphanage and be with her mother. When Twyla had depicted Roberta’s disgust with the food, it is because she was “adequately fed and thus can disdain the institutional Spam and Jell-O that Twyla devours as a contrast to the popcorn and Yoo-Hoo that had been her customary fare” (Abel 4). My assumptions continued to alternate as I read that Roberta did not know how to read. Morrison explores race relations through the complexity of these children’s stories in order to demonstrate the “futility of thinking only in absolutes” (Harris). Understanding the era of this story, my ideas pertaining to reading caused me to guess that Roberta was black. As it was known during that time that black children were not afforded the same opportunities in learning as white children due to segregation, I presumed that she was black based on my cultural knowledge. A reader will form their expectations while engaging in a novel through their previous experiences, cultural knowledge and educational awareness (Moya 56). However, my point of view was taking shape as the mothers had arrived on the scene.

The depictions and descriptions of the mothers brought a whole new perspective in how I viewed Twyla and Roberta. When Twyla’s mother Mary and Roberta’s mother, whose name was not stated, were described in manner and attire, the stereotypes of society had formed my opinion in a few ways. Mary was wearing make-up, green slacks, Lady Esther dusting powder and a fur jacket (Morrison 4). In pondering this, my mind instantly thought of Mrs. Hannigan from the movie Annie. Though Mary danced at night, she may have wanted to come across as successful even though it reveals the hard reality that she is not providing for her daughter as she is spending it on herself. The idea of dancing at night shaped how I saw Mary as being black or white, but reading about her unwholesome behavior at church made me wonder even more if she was white. It becomes more perplexing when Mary did not bring food for Twyla as Roberta’s mother had with the “chicken, ham sandwiches, oranges and box of chocolate covered grahams” (Morrison 5). With Roberta’s mother we find a complete contrast of character. Roberta’s mother was characterized as a tall woman who had a massive cross necklace and Bible. Roberta’s mother was depicted as a God-fearing woman who cared for her daughter even in the midst of being ill. Roberta could be thought of as one who came from a loving family that was cared for. Contrary to Roberta, Twyla was neglected by her mom who was more concerned about vanity and appearance than her own daughter. In comparing these two characters, I had believed that Roberta and her mother were black as I associated the big cross necklace and Bible with the Bible Belt in the South, even though the setting is in New York. This challenged me as I pondered how and why I was quick to assume a person’s race based on simple descriptions. Thus, Morrison’s goal for a reader to see and to examine the preconceptions of race, identity and social cues (Harris) was clear as I had read this story. I did not realize how much my own thoughts had been molded and conditioned to have certain points of view due to cultural influences and racial codes.

As I examined this story’s progression, the anticipation in knowing how Twyla and Roberta would be as adults based off of their formative childhoods was different from what I had expected. As teens, Roberta and Twyla would encounter one another at the Howard Johnson’s where Twyla was a waitress. Roberta was with two guys, wearing clothes and makeup that would have seemed to have resembled Mary’s appearance. When Roberta mentioned that she and the fellows were going to see Jimi Hendrix, Twyla did not know who she was referring to. Jimi Hendrix was a well-known musician in the black community and Twyla may not have known who that was if she was not exposed to it due to the effects of segregation. For Twyla to not know who Hendrix was as a musician is understandable since she grew up differently. The relationship between Twyla and Roberta emerges over the course of societal implications with race. The racial perceptions of the 1950s to 1970s had dramatically altered how they viewed societal topics and one another as adults. This was not as prevalent of an issue when they were children as they became friends regardless of background and race.

As an adult, Twyla’s life as one who lived in the middle class was shown through her station wagon and marriage to a firefighter named James who had a big family. On the other hand, Roberta was living the rich life with expensive diamond jewelry, an upscale limousine, fancy water and an outfit that was a showstopper even in its simplistic form. Roberta married a computer genius widower and was living in a newly developed neighborhood with intelligent people who were doctors and IBM executives. Twyla lived in an old neighborhood that had seen change over the years and was surrounded by people who were on welfare. Considering each status, I could see either one being white or black. My thoughts on what defines poverty and richness does not exactly point to a specific race as either one can be both rich and poor.

When they crossed paths and reminisced on the prior years, Roberta said to Twyla that she acted unfriendly when they were teens because of the tensions between blacks and whites. Twyla did not understand as she perceived that relationships between black and white people were on friendly terms. Through analysis, it seems that Roberta encountered and experienced the impact of segregation as a black person in which Twyla would not fully comprehend as a white person. Twyla only saw black and white people coming off the bus together, but what she did not see was the segregation on the bus that Roberta may have been confronted with.

As parents, Twyla and Roberta’s perspectives regarding choice would be shaped by their own interactions with society and their mother’s influences. When the issue arose in regards to children being integrated and bussing to another school, Twyla was not concerned as Roberta was in sending their children to a school that was not in the best condition. “Recitatif. . . restructures the drama of ambiguity. . . [involving] the reader in the impulse to fix racial meaning and to know the racial status of its characters” (Bennett pp. 211-212). As they disagreed on the matter, Roberta made a sign that said  “Mothers Have Rights Too” while Twyla’s sign said “And So Do Children”. These revealed how their views had been shaped by the upbringings and their mothers. With Twyla fending for herself as a child, she saw the value for children to have a say in the matter as they have rights just as any adult. As Roberta’s mother decided what was best for her since she was ill, Roberta believed it was the mother who had the right to her choice. However, understanding perceptions becomes clearer when Twyla and Roberta have their own points of view about Maggie.

Maggie was an elderly kitchen lady at the orphanage who had bowed legs and did not speak. The children at the orphanage assumed that she was deaf and mute, but no one really knew. She was described as having “sandy-colored” skin and was noted for her wardrobe that were kids’ clothes. When Maggie had fallen down, the events behind her falling down were examined against racial intent. After Roberta accused Twyla of causing Maggie to fall, she would later state that it was the mean orphan girls that had pushed Maggie down. The color of Maggie’s skin was Roberta’s way to say that Twyla had shown racial hate to Maggie who was black. The color of Maggies’s skin posed the questions if she was white or black, but they did not reason that she could be both if she had parents who had an interracial relationship as I saw it to be. Based on their ideas of who she was, it changed the way they remembered the circumstances in how she was injured. “Morrison intentionally abandons linear narration for a structure that duplicates memory, a pattern in which associative connections inspire the relating of [certain] instances” (Harris). The perspectives of Twyla and Roberta had evolved my own opinion and point of view as I understood theirs.

Through the Reader Response criticism, my analytical lens adjusted to see how context, descriptions, imagery and culture shapes a person to view life and people. Understanding how racial codes that society has made and abided by in many terms was questioned, exposed and demonstrated through Toni Morrison’s work. The unconventional structure of character portrayal through life experience and societal inclinations have revealed another side of close reading that can expand one’s own ideas. As a white woman, “Recitatif” has taught me that one can not judge a book by its cover. Rather, I aim to examine my own predispositions that I have learned and adopted through racial categorization. Therefore, analyzing the depths of this story reveals the nature and implications of racial inferences that should be challenged as one understands their own sense of self and the world they live in.

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, Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Harris, Trudier. “Toni Morrison: Solo Flight through Literature into History.” World Literature Today, vol. 68, no. 1, 1994, pp. 9–14. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Apr. 2023.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif”, Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.1983. . Accessed 8 May 2023.

Moya, Paula L.. The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Stanford University Press, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed 28 Apr. 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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