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“Recitatif” a Book by Toni Morrison Essay

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Updated: Dec 28th, 2020


“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison represents the complex collection of ideas and issues covering a large variety of topics, which this paper is devoted to. The author of a short story leads the reader though the life lines of two protagonists – Twyla and Roberta, who have once met, and have been experiencing encounters for several times during their lives. The reader has the possibility to observe the dynamics of their characters development through the prism of different factors: social status, race, and power.

The author leads the reader through the intricacy of the events occurring to Twyla and Roberta and does not provide the reader with exact information about the girls’ race. During the reading process there are, however, some clues to definition of the girls’ race and these clues are going to be discussed in this paper.

Thus, the beginning of the story enables the reader to immediately get to know about the setting at the first place and about the narrator at the second. The first paragraph reveals the fact that the girls are being placed to the boarding school and they have come along later due to the fact that “nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky”. [Morrison, 2] The narrator, Twyla, is retelling the story in an infantile manner, so that the reader cannot guess who is the real narrator – the little girl or the grown-up woman, as may be observed at the end of the story. Hence, one may draw a conclusion that the story is built in a form of a diary, where each event is being described in the chronological order and according to the time passing.

“My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick” [Morrison, 1] – the introductory sentence of the story states the reason why the girls have found themselves at the boarding school and what was the premise of their unity. During the girls’ first encounter the reader gets to know about their race differentiation:

I got sick to my stomach. It 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, 1]

Naturally, the reader can feel the initial ‘astonishment’ of Twyla, who has got to know about her new neighbor. It seems, Twyla was experiencing a kind of disgust towards Roberta, and her immediate associations that appeared in mind were the words of her mother Mary “one of the things she said was that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean”. [Morrison, 1]

Since the author gives only hints to identify the girls to some race, the reader can make only guesses towards this information and reinforce his or her opinion on the bases of several clues.

Racial differentiation

In my point of view, there is no universal answer for the definition of the girls’ race relies solely upon personal beliefs of the reader, the prejudices and stereotypes that were formed in each reader by the variety of factors: nationality, age, again social status, and race. Our idea about race is shaped by the society were are being surrounded, and, the first and the foremost, by our parents. That is probably why the story is so broadly and in a detailed manner describes the mothers of the girls. Moreover, while seeing Roberta for the first time, Twyla has immediately recalled the things her mother said about different race, although, as we may further observe, her mother Mary can be hardly called an authority for her daughter. The following citation is to support this point:

But her face was pretty-like always, and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother- not me.” [Morrison, 4]

Little Twyla did not even called her “mother”, but “Mary” for she considered her to be a grown-up peer, whom she cannot rely on, whom he cannot believe, and whom she was extremely ashamed of: “All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed”. [Morrison, 6]

Nevertheless, the reader notes, that little Twyla, on meeting Roberta, refreshes the mother-shaped prejudice about the other race’s smell and hygiene. Generally, this clue forces me to consider Roberta to be a representative of a black-skin race for there is a common prejudice, that the type of hair that the Blackman have is hard to comb and for the reason that the hair is also not easily washed they do it quite seldom.

The next clue which defines the girls’ race through the prism of my own stereotypes and prejudices again calls for the fact that Roberta is a black girl and Twyla is the white one. The following citation proves the statement:

We were eight years old and 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. She wasn’t good at anything except jacks, at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop pow scoop”. [Morrison, 2]

Due to established in my social group conceptions, there is a majority of literate white people, in comparison with the black people, who would not consider education the vital part of personality development. That is why Roberta’s mother did not teach her girl the basics of literacy. Secondly, the last part of citation may confirm that Roberta is rather a disobedient and emotional child, rebelling against everything and unwilling to learn. In contrast with the white, who are considered to be quite reserved and patient, the black do not constrain their emotions and let them be exposed.

The next clue to identify the girls’ race is their attitude towards food, which is also the differentiation point.

The food was good, though. At least I thought so. Roberta hated it and left whole pieces of things on her plate: Spam, Salisbury steak-even jello with fruit cocktail in it, and she didn’t care if I ate what she wouldn’t. 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]

By common prejudice, the black pay considerable attention to nutrition and, being always well fed at home, Roberta naturally does not appreciate food at the boarding school. The fact that her mother has brought a lot of food during the Parents’ Day reinforces this opinion.

During this Parents’ Day the mothers of Twyla and Roberta experienced an unpleasant encounter. When Roberta tried to introduce her mother to Mary,

Roberta’s mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too. She didn’t say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her Bible-free hand and stepped out of line, walking quickly to the rear of it”. [Morris, 5]

Due to Twyla’s description, Roberta’s mother was very big, wearing a big cross and holding an enormous Bible in her hand.

Firstly, it is considered, that the black are more religious and so to say religiously desperate than the white. Mary’s appearance easily revealed her ‘occupation’, which was obviously loathed by the mother of Roberta. Secondly, it is believed, that the physique of the black is more muscular and strong that the one the white have. That is why Roberta’s mother makes an impression of a black woman.

However, the one thing which confuses the whole flow of logical thought is the thought of Twyla, who has met Roberta for the third time. Twyla was thinking about Roberta’s progress, while assessing her clothing:

Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world”. [Morrison, 10]

This is, by general belief, the concept of the black, who rebel against the white in terms of their power and rights in the world. For this is, generally, the truthful statistics, that then, at the times when the story has been written, the black had the tiny minority of rights, unlike at our times.

Nevertheless, the following lines contradict the latter point:

I was a small-town country waitress”.

And I was a small-town country dropout”. [Morrison, 13] – the line of Roberta. Commonly, the white would not call him- or herself a dropout. The average white person does not feel the sense of separatism, neither wants he/she to be spaced out of the society, which gives a person the feeling of identity and support.

I don’t know; you acted sort of like you didn’t want to know me then.”

Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was.”

But I didn’t know. I thought it was just the opposite. [Morrison, 16].

The citation above provokes thinking that Roberta, being rebellious since childhood, has always been aware of the situation between the black and the white and has always taken active part in different movements. Personally, I agree, that it was worth fighting for equality and ability to acquire favorable social status, but sometimes the black too much ‘attentive’ to reveal discrimination in things which are not directed to hurt at all.

The race issue is undoubtedly very sensitive issue, and it is worth taking into consideration the strength and inner power of the black to have accomplished what we can see today, but it often happens that the idea of black-white differentiation is not the white’s initiative. Indeed, just like the Morrison’s story is majorly the place for own creative work of our prism of perception, so is the idea of the black about the white’s hatred to them.

Hence, Roberta is heavily preoccupied with the race issues, while Twyla is being quite unaware of the situation. Thus, we can conclude that Twyla is white and Roberta is black. However, as it has already been stated, this idea may not be universal for there is no ‘right’ answer. The conclusion is wholly subjective and involves a considerable influence of personal prejudice, assumption, and preference.

Friendship and memory

“Salt and pepper”, as they were called at the boarding school, Twyla and Roberta have found the common language for they had their parents alive, but not “the beautiful dead parents in the skies”. This was the first thing to unite them, which, further, has grown into something bigger, that may optionally be called child’s friendship. They were either united by common interests, by school failures, and, first, and foremost, understanding and tolerance to each other. There are several times of Twyla’s recalling of the following words:

Is your mother sick too?”

No,” I said. “She just likes to dance all night”.

Oh,” she nodded her head and I liked the way she understood things so fast”. [Morrison, 1]

Indeed, the girls had a good sense of each other, even in situations of fear; they have understood that they could not reveal it for they were support to each other, “We were scared of them, Roberta and me, but neither of us wanted the other one to know it”. [Morrison, 2] Talking about the grown-up girls at the Bonny’s, Roberta and Twyla were always helping each other out in confrontations, behaving, actually, like sisters and taking care of each other.

However, soon, Roberta had to leave, and, “Little by little she faded. Her wet socks with the pink scalloped tops and her big serious-looking eyes-that’s all I could catch when I tried to bring her to mind”. [Morrison, 6] It is interesting that Twyla, the narrator, was always so detailed in her descriptions. She has always noticed the things others probably wouldn’t and the clothing was the first characteristics of people to come to her mind – she remembered everything to the trifle. This may be probably connected with her mother’s constant vulgar manner of clothing, which was so shameful and ugly to Twyla. We can observe it during the girls’ sudden meeting:

But she was waiting for me and her huge hair was sleek now, smooth around a small, nicely shaped head. Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich”. [Morrison, 10]

As the time passed, there were some other encounters with Roberta, during one of which Twyla expressed her appreciation:

Now we were behaving like sisters separated for much too long. Those four short months were nothing in time. Maybe it was the thing itself. Just being there, together. Two little girls who knew what nobody else in the world knew-how not to ask questions. How to believe what had to be believed. There was politeness in that reluctance and generosity as well”. [Morrison, 12]

The two women, taught by life to be strong and steady, have needed each other’s support through the lifetime, the same support they performed at the boarding school, but did not want to consider, that everything was changing and they were no longer those little girls at Bonny’s in a chamber with four beds. That is why it is reasonable to say that relationship time-tested cannot be immediately called friendship, which should be either challenged with trials. Hence, I would not consider the relationship of Twyla and Roberta to be true friendship – this is just a flash back to the past. The women had had common things, which were so firmly fixed in their memory, that it seemed that month of life they had together was brighter than the whole rest of life.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif” 1983. p. 24. Web.

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