Writing on Women Writers

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“Recitatif”-Ignoring Black and White Stereotypes


Tony Morrison’s “Recitatif” is a short story about two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, and their interactions throughout their entire lives.  We know one of the girls is black and one of them is white but Morrison never tells us exactly which one is which so we are never entirely sure.  All we know is that the girls are of different class structures.  The girls never display any clear stereotypical characteristics of each race but have characteristics that could be each race.  Morrison does at great job at removing the racial codes from this story, leaving the reader to guess what the race of each girl is.

I found that at the end of the story I did not know of what race Twyla and Roberta were.  I had no idea throughout any of the book.  I couldn’t give an exact race to either one because there just wasn’t enough evidence in the story for me to do that.  There was one section that made me think Twyla was black, and it was on page 1228 in our anthologies.  It read:

“Mary, simple-minded as ever, grinned and tried to yank her hand out of the pocket with the tragedy lining- to shake hands, I guess.  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” (1228).

This section made me think that Twyla and her mother were black, because Roberta’s mother wouldn’t shake Mary’s hand at all and back in the 50s when this took place, it was stereotypical of a white person to not want to touch or associate with a black person.  But then I started to think that if Roberta’s mother was an upperclass black woman and saw Twyla’s mother as a lower class white hussy, she may still not want to shake her hand.  Morrison does this throughout the entire story, where you think that one girl could be one race but you are never exactly sure.

I think Morrison does this to prove a point that we are all equal.  In the story we know one girl is white and one is black but we are never sure which one is which because Morrison never comes out and says it.  By removing the racial code from the story, it helps to prove that we are all equal and that you can’t judge a person based on their race.  Also by removing stereotypes and putting the girls in similar life situations Morrison continues to prove a point that we are equal and anyone could be any race.

This book was enlightening and really made me think.  A lot of Toni Morrison’s writing does that for me.  Down below is a link to a YouTube video where she talks about her motivation for writing.


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Toni Morrison is was born February 18 1931 in Lorain Ohio. n 1949 Morrison entered Howard University, where she received a B.A. in English in 1953. She also earned a master’s degree  in English from Cornell University in 1955, for which she wrote a thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf . After graduation Morrison moved to Houston Texas and became an English teacher at Southern Texas University. After her divorce in 1962 she moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked as a textbook editor. A year and a half later she went to work as an editor at the New York City headquarters of Random House which is the largest general-interest trade book publisher in the world.


As a young girl Morrison’s father, George Woford, told her numerous folktales, which she states is a method of story telling that later worked its way into some of her writing. The folktales were primarily about black communities. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters.  One example of this would be in her only sort story “Recitatif“.  This short story is the story of two young girls. Right from the beginning of the story the reader learns that the two girls are of different races. However, throughout the story, the reader is unaware of which girl is of which race. Morrison plays on stereotypes of whites and blacks, and lets the readers decide for themselves which girl is which.



One example of how Morrison uses stereotypes in order to make the reader define the girls races is on the first page. Morrison states, “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. Smelly funny, I mean.” (1225). Right from the start you can see how Morrison uses aspects of what the reader may assume to be stereotypical connections to race. The fact that the mother told her daughter in the story that “they” never wash their hair is already showing racial assumptions. Since the Morrison put this in the story, she is making the reader  lean toward conventional aspects that would define the girls’ races.


Another example of stereotypes in the story that Morrison uses would be the girls second meeting in the story, eight years later during the 1960’s. The reading states, “”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her. “Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?” Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling. “Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest- Oh wow. Forget it””. (1229) When reading this the reader is forced to assume the races of the girls. One may assume that because Jimi Hendrix was a African-American rock singer, that it is African-American teenagers who would be going to see him. However, Jimi Hendrix’s music was popular throughout different communities, came from England, and had a band with two white men. or that reason it could be possible that the girl who was going to the concert could be Caucasian.


One other example of how the reader show decide for themselves which girls is which raced based on the stereotypes provided would be during the racial strike. It states, “”Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot.”” Twyla responds by saying, “She wasn’t black”. (1234). When reading this the reader might first assume that Roberta is the one that is black. This is because she is the one who is participating at a racial strike. However, there were also Caucasians that helped and participated in different racial strikes. Also, the act that they use the word “bigot” can be taken in different ways.  Bigot can be defined as, “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”.  It’s an interesting word to use because it could go wither way with which girl you put with which race.


All in all, you can see how Morrison uses the readers own stereotypes on racism in order to define which character is which race.



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Recitatif and the Unknown Races


In the story Recitatif, by Toni Morrison we are introduced right away to two young girls. The only thing we know about them is that they are or different races and are placed in a shelter. The interesting thing that Morrison does is she never tells us what race each child is. Throughout the story it is the readers decision to choose who they think is which race. Their job is to notice parts in the novel that would set the races apart. As the reader your tendency is to lean toward stereotypical aspects that would define the girls’ races.  For example we are given a chance to be stereotypical right in the beginning of the story:

“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” (pg. 1244).

This right away tends to make readers think Roberta is African American. This was because the story was written in 1983. During this time period many slaves could not read or write.  This is the first assumption the reader would make but throughout the novel Morrison challenges us.

The next section where Morrison plays on the race role is when Twyla and Roberta meet at the Howard Johnson’s. (click for a quick old commercial of one of these restaurants!!) Twyla was working there and Roberta stopped in.

“”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her.

“Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. “Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?”

Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling.

“Hendrix. Jimmy Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest—Oh, wow. Forget it” (pg. 1229).

Many would assume Roberta was African American here as well, but others would could assume she was Caucasian.  A lot of Caucasians were huge fans of Jimmy Hendrix. It is another way of Morrison trying to get the reader to question the races.

Morrison deliberately left the races out. She wanted to show that people make assumptions based on people no matter what you tell them.  Morrison wrote many other stories about these situations. Morrison is very passionate about who she is and what she has done to get to where she is in life. Below is an interview with her. She is a powerful woman!

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recitatif in Recitatif

Toni Morrison’s writing style aims to involve the reader emotionally. She says, “my writing expects, demands, participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about telling a story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some color, some sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it” (1225).


I think it’s interesting that Morrison refers to her writing as her “language.” A word I’s use to describe her work is “genuine.” Morrison writes the way she speaks. It is no wonder the reader can be so emotionally connected to her stories. The language is relatable.

Along those lines, Morrison uses the style of recitatif, which is also the title of the story. This style relates to that of recitatif in opera, in which a character sings in a thoughtful, speech-like manner preceding the aria. An aria is closer to what we know of as a song.

“It really wasn’t bad, St. Bonny’s. The big girls on the second floor pushed us around now and then. But that was all. They wore lipstick and eyebrow pencil and wobbled their knees while they watched TV. Fifteen, sixteen, even some of them were. They were put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean. God, did they look mean. The staff tried to keep them separate from the younger children, but sometimes they caught us watching them in the orchard where they played radios and danced with each other. They’d light out after us and pull our hair and twist our arms. We were scared of them, Roberta and me, but neither of us wanted the other one to know it “ (1226).

As can be seen in this passage, the writing is quite fragmented. Sentences stop and start in places one would not expect upon reading a grammatically correct piece of literature. It does, however, make sense as it is speech-like in nature.

We are provided with new information upon each new sentence. This is certainly a technique that produces emotional involvement on behalf of the reader. It is gripping in a way that constantly draws us in and makes us want to know what is next. The short sentences also provide way to reel in our focus, rather than be lost in a long jumble of words.

Morrison mentions that the reader supplies color and sound. In this way, the reader can truly make a story his or her own, with his or her own thoughts and opinions. Morrison does not specify the racial backgrounds of Twyla and Roberta, but still makes it a central topic to the story. Upon making conclusions about race, in response to some of the stereotypes in the story, one can even learn quite a bit about his or her own thinking process.

ABC News special on the psychology of stereotypes:

Morisson aims to engage the reader’s emotions, yet the tone of her writing is so “unemotional” with blunt, short, matter-of-fact phrasing. Her language is anything but flowery. She does not tell the reader how to feel but forces the reader to feel something. I think that is big part of what art does.

I would say that this style, is very “take it or leave it”, which in itself is extremely powerful.

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Filling in the Blanks


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.

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Toni Morrison 

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In Morrison’s story Recitatif she shows the lives of two young girls Twyla and Roberta who are in St. Bonny’s. One of the girls is black and one  is white. Morrison never reveals which girl is which race she leaves that for the reader to interpret.

This is part of their last encounter with each other.

 “It’s about St. Bonny’s and Maggie.”

 “Oh, please.”

 “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. And I don’t want you to

carry that around. It was just that I wanted to do it so bad that day-wanting

to is doing it“(1236-1237).

During this encounter the realization of it not mattering which girl is which race. They both wanted to join in with the tormenting of Maggie. This, makes the race of the characters no longer matter. They are two girls who met at the wrong time in history. They both had their own perspectives on things.  Roberta believed that Maggie was black while Twyla remembers her not being black. Both perspectives in the story can be of  a black or white person.

Us as readers go through these encounters with these two women and with our own racial stereotypes trying to figure out which race belongs to which character. In the end as readers we find out that it does not matter which race belongs to who. We realize that they were just children both  who met at an orphanage and became friends. There meeting and being friends was out of chance.When they meet its a time where black and white children are not and could not be friends. In the second encounter again in a time where their friendship would of been looked down upon.  The fact that Roberta due to issues of race and wealth snubbed Twyla during their first encounter in the diner hurt Twyla. She seemed to have no understanding of why they could not be friends like they once were.

Their friendship would not be able to work out even with a someone like Twyla who doesn’t see the difference that race and class. To her it truly did not matter, but in the end society made it matter. In this last encounter when it no longer mattered they finally were able to sit down and talk.  Admit that due to the previous times they couldn’t be friends. Also, due to those times they both wanted to torment Maggie. Be prejudice against people who were different. Now they could talk about the one thing that had always reunited them Maggie and their mothers.

In today’s world one would think we may not be as prejudice about some things, but we still are very prejudice.  We have our first black president and still there are those who are prejudice.  We are in a time where the realization of everyone is equal should kick in, but sadly there are still people out there that can not get past the color of someones skin.

An example of people in today’s world who have gotten past this are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. They have adopted children from all over the world. When their kids grow up they are not going to have the same encounters Roberta and Twyla had. They are going to see each other as family and accept one another the way they are. Not as children of different races and backgrounds.


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Born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American Novelist; she is also an editor and professor. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford are credited for instilling in her a love of reading, music and folklore. Her novels involve vivid dialogue and richly detailed black characters. She was not fully aware of racial divisions until she was in her teens. She once told a reporter from The New York Times “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child in the class who could read.” One article states, “What I am determined to do is to take what is articulated as an elusive race-free paradise and domesticate it. I am determined to concretize a literary discourse that (outside of science fiction) resonates exclusively in the register of permanently unrealizable dream. It is a discourse that (unwittingly) allows racism an intellectual weight to which it has absolutely no claim.Unlike the successful advancement of argument, narration requires the active complicity of a reader willing to step outside established boundaries of the racial imaginary. And, unlike visual media, narrative has not pictures to ease the difficulty of that step.”

Toni Morrison has become the name around which the debates of considerable significance to American literature, culture and ideology have amassed — these include debates about multicultural curricula; about the relation of slavery to freedom; about the possibility of creating literature that is both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaged. One novel she wrote, Recitatif, deals with the major racial issues prevalent in the lives of two young eight year old girls who live in the 60s until they reach their mid 40s. As mentioned, the novel, including two young girls, one young one black opens with them at an orphanage and then takes place at four separate meetings later on in life. Morrison, when using dialogue between the two, never implicates which child is black and which is white…that stays a mystery, although at some points one could take a guess which one is which however that idea formulated could change with the next meeting. Morrison invites readers to participate in a soaring affirmation: Life can be understood, she says, and it is beautiful, even glorious. In each of her novels, the individual finds knowledge, meaning, and faith in a clearly duplicitous world. Such affirmation rests on Morrison’s racialized and feminist self. She wants to strip away all the racist assumptions, not in order to study race but to look deeply at what remains, to see it in a new way that is fresh and clear. “In writing novels,” Morrison noted, “the adventure for me has been exploration of seemingly impenetrable, race-inflected, race-clotted topics”

As stated in the youtube video above, Morrison uses a particular device to make people question their assumptions and their stereotypes surrounding the fact that she does not indulge which character is black and which is white. She leaves it up to the reader to question that but in turn makes the reader question the fact that they are stereotyping that character in the novel based on preconceived notions of their idea of race. Some examples of racial stereotypes in the novel are:

  • Twyla doesn’t at first know what to think of Roberta, but Twyla remembers and agrees
    with something her mother has told her, that people who are of Roberta’s race “never
    washed their hair and they smelled funny.” (p.682)
  • Twyla: “I saw [my mother] right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated
    even more because didn’t she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with
    the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face
    was pretty—like always—and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking
    for her mother. . . . But I couldn’t stay mad at [my mother] while she was smiling and
    hugging me and smelling of Lady Esther dusting powder. . . . and I was feeling proud
    because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.” (p.684-685)
  • Twyla to Roberta – “Look at them,” I said. “Just look. Who do they think they are? Swarming all over the place like they own it. And they think they can decide where my child goes to school. Look at them, Roberta. They’re Bozos.” (p.1234).

Aside from these examples, there are many other examples from the text where racial stereotypes are placed.