Recitatif is a term derived from the musical term recitative. The word describes a piece of dramatic music, such as opera, where there are spoken parts within the music. It also can be traced back to its Latin root word, recitare, which can be defined as reciting from memory. Recitatif also happens to be the title of a literary work by Toni Morrison and not by coincidence. The title of this short story is important to understanding the text because Morrison leaves readers to fill in their our thoughts between the broken parts of the character’s memories. The readers’ personal thoughts and opinions influence how they read the story.
This story story is set up in different “acts” which are recollections of one of the main character’s memory. It begins with two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, who are placed in an orphanage, not because they are orphans, but because their mothers are unfit for one reason or another. Many times throughout the story the reader’s are encouraged to fill in the blank about the different aspects of the characters. This can be seen throughout the entire story as reader’s are left guessing about the race of the girls.
“And Mary, that’s my mother, she was right. Every now and then she would stop dancing long enough to tell me something important and one of the things she said was that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean. So when the Big Bozo (nobody ever called her Mrs. Itkin, just like nobody ever said St. Bonaventure)- when she said, “Twyla this Roberta. Roberta this is Twyla. Make each other welcome.” I said, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here.”” (p. 1225)
Even though this passage comes from the first scene of the story, it is extremely important. It is the first instance where race comes in and the first hint of uncertainty for the reader. We do not know who is white and who is black at this time. Based on stereotypes, especially stereotypes between races at this time in history (which is presumably the 1950’s or 60’s), it is not an unlikely assumption that Twyla is white while Roberta is black. We know that it is Twyla making these assumptions about Roberta ( ie. she is smelly and does not wash her hair) based on things her mother has told her. This seems to be a white person’s view on black people, but once again it is not possible for the roles to be reversed. It is just as possible that a black person would feel that way about a white person, it is all about the way the reader interrupts the text.
The reader is once again challenged towards the end of this first act when Twyla and Roberta’s mothers come to visit them. Roberta’s mother is portrayed as a stuck up, holy roller. She refused to shake the hand of Twyla’s mother, who is dressed rather gaudy and trashy for lack of a better term. In this scene, it can be thought that Twyla’s mother is a “trashy,” low-class black women, while Roberta’s mother was a higher class, religious white women. On the other hand, there is a stereotype of large black women, who are very religious and not afraid to publicize that, so the opposite opinion is also not far from the truth.
This back and forth process of thought continues throughout the whole story. We meet the girls at several points in their lives from late teens to adulthood. In each situation your judgement of the characters changes. Especially, when the two friends discuss Maggie, a older woman who used to work at St. Bonnies when they lived there. As Twyla remembers the incident with Maggie, she recalls that the older, “bad” girls in the orphanage had beat Maggie one day after she had fallen. Maggie was deaf and could not speak. In Roberta’s recollection of the event, the girls had pushed Maggie and then Twyla and Maggie had joined in as they kicked her. The interesting part was that Roberta remembered Maggie as being black, while Twyla remembered Maggie as a white woman.
“”Listen to me. I really did think she was black. I didn’t make that up. I really thought so. But now I can’t be sure. I just remember her as old, so old. And because she couldn’t talk-well, you know, I thought she was crazy. She’d been brought up in an institution like my mother was and like I thought I would be too. And you were right. We didn’t kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her. I said we did it, too. You and me, but that’s not true.”” (p. 1237)
This passage comes from the last act of the story. It is the confession from Roberta to Twyla about her memory with Maggie. This passage can quite possibly be our biggest clue as to the races of the girls. Maggie represented a lot for both Twyla and Roberta. For the girls Maggie was a representation of themselves. At times they had been beaten down by life and were left without a voice. So if this symbol is true and they saw themselves in Maggie, it would be interesting that they would remember Maggie as being the same race as they were. Maggie’s race would be a minor detail in the whole scheme of what happened.
This is the only short story written by Toni Morrison, but her other works carry similar messages about racism and other societal problems. Recitatif largely expresses Morrison’s opinions and by reading this piece she makes her reader’s not only aware of current events, but also makes them aware of themselves.