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Book Review: ‘Recitatif: A Story’ by Toni Morrison

Book Review: ‘Recitatif: A Story’ by Toni Morrison

If you want to talk about “classic moments,” one of my favorites is a 1998 interview that writer Toni Morrison did with Charlie Rose. Like most journalists, Rose prodded at Morrison — with questions about race. Specifically, when would she stop writing about race, meaning, writing about Black culture and Black people?

Morrison answered, “The person who asks that question doesn’t understand he is also raced.”

I’ve watched the interview several times. Not only did Rose misunderstand what race meant, he didn’t realize that he’d brought a knife to a gunfight. He thought he was equipped to outwit THE Toni Morrison, a Black woman writer who’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in a debate about Blackness and its relevance in storytelling.

It is that brilliance she brings to Recitatif, her short story that was originally published in 1980 in different collections now being released for the first time as a stand-alone book. Recitatif tells the story of Twyla and Roberta — one white, one Black — who meet in a shelter when they are eight years old. The girls’ races are never revealed.

Morrison herself describes this story as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”

Twyla and Roberta are both wards of the state. They spend four months together in the St. Bonaventure shelter. We learn they are there for different reasons: Twyla’s mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. The story is told from Twyla’s point of view, which may lead you to believe she must be Black, since her author is Black. But then I realized that was too simpleminded towards Morrison’s complex experiment.

I read the book three times. Easy to do, as the story is a quick 38 pages. No matter how closely I read, I could not absolutely say which of these girls is Black and which is white. I kept going back and forth in my decision. In the story, we get to see them become adult women who sometimes run into each other. I paid attention to their language, description of their clothes, their husbands, their jobs, their children, their lives. It’s like a puzzle of a story, then I felt like I was playing a game. When she called Recitatif an “experiment” she meant it.

Like me, I know you’re probably wondering what recitatif means. It is derived from the word recitative.

recitative | noun

1a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech and that is used for dialogue and narrative in operas and oratorios also a passage to be delivered in this style

Morrison is giving us the challenge of trying to decipher ordinary speech. We hear the words of Twyla and the words of Roberta, and although they are separate, we cannot differentiate them the way we need to. This is how she makes the experiment work — writing the story in such a way that every phrase straddles the fence between what we think is “Black” and “white” vernacular. Truth is, most of us think we can distinguish a Black or white speaker, based on the tone and rhythm. Morrison challenges that theory.

As readers, we visualize what characters look like and how they move through the world. In Recitatif, it’s impossible. For example, when Twyla says, “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” What kind of mother tends to dance all night? A Black one or a white one? Whose mother is more likely to be sick? Even with their names — is one blacker than the other? The story challenges what you think you know, and forces out biases you have deep down inside.

As the story progresses, Roberta leaves St. Bonaventure first, and a few months after so does Twyla. The girls grow into women. Years later, Twyla is waiting tables at a Howard Johnson’s, when Roberta walks in with hair “so big and wild” that Twyla can barely see her face. She’s wearing a halter top and hot pants, sitting between two guys with big hair and beards. They are going to see Jimi Hendrix — and we can argue whether his music is Black or white. Then, in another twist, we learn that Twyla doesn’t even know who Hendrix is.

Morrison also addresses cruelty in the story but not the kind that typically divides Black and white. She focuses on the kind within the system. There is a woman who works in the kitchen at St. Bonaventure, Maggie, whose position is considered lower than the girls. Maggie is old and mute. Twyla mentions that she can’t remember whether she was nice or not but that she rocked when she walked because she had “legs like parentheses.”

Once, Maggie fell over in the school orchard. The older girls laughed and mocked her, while Twyla and Roberta stood there and did nothing. “She wore this really stupid little hat — a kid’s hat with earflaps — and she wasn’t much taller than we were.” In the social status of St. Bonaventure, it’s clear that Maggie is at the lowest of the low.

What’s interesting is that Maggie’s fall doesn’t go away. On another encounter between Twyla and Roberta, there is conversation about what happened to Maggie. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Maggie “fell” down. Roberta claims Maggie was Black and that Twyla pushed her down. This causes pain for Twyla because she does not remember anything about the event. This is another element to the story that we never learn the truth of.

I believe that Morrison wants us to feel embarrassed about how we treat the helpless, even if we too feel helpless. Even though Twyla and Roberta are in a shelter (seemingly helpless), Maggie is helpless as well, being old and unable to speak.

This one-and-only short story by Toni Morrison does not disappoint. Her writing is brilliant, as always. You will devour it like I did and be well-satisfied. I found it impossible not to want to know the races of Twyla and Roberta. I wanted to sympathize with both, yet as the girls became adult women, I was annoyed at how they pushed each other’s buttons. I believe this is the angst Morrison wants us to feel. Recitatif reminds us that it is not Black or white to be poor, oppressed, ignored, or different.

The last line in the book is, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” Of course, it is not supposed to be clear. Whatever happened to Maggie was done by people — people like Twyla and Roberta, people like you and me.

Recitatif is available February 1, 2022.

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