As I stare out the window on this bleak, snowy morning, I contemplate Toni Morrison’s book, Recitatif, and my prejudices. As humans, we like to think we are perfect and have no bias, but we do! What are yours?
Recitatif, the only short story by Morrison, was written in 1980 and was first published this year. The book centers on two eight-year-old girls, Twyla and Roberta, who meet when they spend four months as roommates in a state-run shelter for orphans called St. Bonaventure. The girls spend all their time together during their stay because, unlike the other orphans, both of their mothers are alive – Roberta’s mom is sick, and Twyla’s mom danced all night. As they grow older, the girls lose touch, but they see one another three times in adulthood through fate reencounter.
The racial identity of the two female protagonists is unknown throughout the story; in fact, Morrison purposely writes the story this way. We know that one girl is Black and the other is White; we just do not know who is who. In Morrison’s words, this book is “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” Of course, after reading this quote, I was dying to read the book to decipher who is who. As a result, while reading this book, I was doing mental gymnastics the entire time to solve the mystery.
So, reader, can I convince you that Twyla is Black? My reasonings are as follows: 1). The book is a first-person narration by Twyla. Morrison is famous for focusing her work on the Black community and telling Black stories without the White gaze. Still, you may say her writing history is mute because she is experimenting with this particular story. Okay! 2). When the two mothers visit the girls at the shelter, Twyla’s mom brings nothing to eat, and Roberta’s mom has a ton of food. Also, Roberta’s mom refuses to shake hands with Twyla’s mom. My rationale is that Twyla’s mom is poor and Black; hence she could not afford food to bring. Meanwhile, Roberta’s mom is White and prejudiced, so she refuses to shake hands. However, you may feel that the physical characteristics of the two mothers don’t fit with my conclusion. Perhaps, this is due to your preconceived biases, or are my prejudices are on display? How about this, 3). Twyla and Roberta start out the same, but as the novel progresses, Twyla’s life seems to worsen, especially where she lives, which you discover is a now depressed town, and who she finally marries. What do you think? Have you read this book?
Honestly, why does this matter? Why must I know who is Black and who is White? Why cannot I let it be and read the work for what it is? Could it be because of our society, where everything is a matter of Black or White? A culture where one group is supposedly superior and the other subhuman? A world in which comparison with others is an essential element of existence? However, maybe it is time to embrace similarities, be more tolerant, and show some compassion?
This is a great book, but I hold Morrison’s work in high esteem. I find her to be brilliant and wise beyond her times. This book illuminates your preconceived notions of others and causes you to analyze their origins, which can be uncomfortable. While not a warm and fuzzy read, it is necessary and strongly recommended. Even Zadie Smith’s introduction is noteworthy and enlightening. However, I suggest reading Zadie Smith’s introduction after the story because she gives too much away.
All that being said, reader, did I convince you? Do you care about their racial identity?