Recitatif (1983) by African-American novelist Toni Morrison presents the story of friendship between two girls – black and white. The short story reveals the transformation of attitudes to each other since their meet at an orphanage at the age of eight up to their re-acquaintance being mothers. The action takes place in America during 1960s. There are five major scenes in which Twyla and Roberta’s relationship is disclosed: in a Howard Johnson’s, in the grocery store in Newburgh, at a picket line against a busing plan and in a Christmas Eve.
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The 1960s were the time when social and cultural segregation was the norm throughout the country. The decade is characterized by active struggle for racial equality that marks the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In this context the racial difference is the leading factor that influences the relationships between the girls.
Though the relationship between the two main characters is explored through the perspective of racial difference, the author does not disclose which character is white and which is black. A peculiar feature of the passage is that instead of revealing the distinctive features of African Americans, the author concentrates on the fact that the distinction between the races in the American society is dependent on the extreme opposition that blacks and whites feel towards one another.
The tone of the story is enigmatic; it keeps the reader off-balance. To achieve this effect throughout the text the author uses a number of rhetoric questions (“How’s that for mean?”), exclamatory sentences (“Bow legs! Bow legs!”) and parenthetic constructions (“She wore this really stupid little hat – a kid’s hat with ear flaps – and she wasn’t much taller than we were”) (Morrison 2253, 2255). The author’s frequent use of repetitions and jargon vocabulary is important for it renders the ordinary events in the life of Americans: “That bitch!”, “Shit, shit, shit” (2256, 2266)
The fact that the story is told in the first person contributes to its mysterious character. The narrative sounds rather subjective; therefore, the reader does not know which position to take. What is more, the reader is not given any resolution even at the end of the story. The story concludes with “What the hell happened to Maggie?” (2266) that emphasizes the importance that the event with Maggie had for the girls’ future. Though the girls never saw Maggie after leaving St. Bonny’s what had happened to her becomes crucial for understanding the opposition that existed between the girls as between the representatives of different social layers. Numerous dialogues between the girls help the author to render the atmosphere of this opposition.
“Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you are not!” (2260) The concept of difference expressed in Roberta’s words underlines the differences in perception of the world that people of different origin possess. To be “different” for Roberta means to change her inner world in which she used to consider Twyla her best friend. “Now” is stressed by the author to show how time and circumstances can influence the formation of personality.
Still, this influence revealed the author leaves the reader at a loss as for the two ex-friends future relationship. One can only guess what direction this relationship will take. The reader is left wondering how many destinies were broken and would be broken because of the racial prejudices. Twyla and Roberta’s case is not unique and this makes one think of the absence of any possibility to solve the problem of racism.
Morrison, Toni. 1983. Recitatif. In Norton anthology of American literature. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 2253-2267.