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White or Black?

In: English and Literature

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White or Black?

A not so silent part of society at the time, racism is the main theme in Toni Morrison’s short story, “Recitatif”. The story is a recollection of the memory of a friendship effected by many factors, but mainly influenced by race. Although the races are ambiguous to the reader, the main characters Twyla and Roberta deal with an increasingly strained friendship until the two eventually reconcile at an older age. Through the use of first person narration, Morrison presents the issue of race and racism in a controlled, but effective perspective.
Twyla’s first person narration is the only view of events we see and in turn becomes our own view. From the beginning of the story when Twyla and Roberta meet we get the sense that there is already a great divide between them, “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” (139). We never find out what race Twyla or Roberta is, but this initial introduction shows that at least Twyla is uncomfortable being around Roberta.
Is it really important that we know which race is which? Many people, myself included, read this over many times looking for clues that would indicate Twyla and or Roberta’s race. However, the only conclusion I reach is that it is unimportant whether or not we know. The fact that the friendship is interracial is enough to convey the theme. In fact, by not specifying either race it makes the story stronger. It is no longer a story about a white girl and a black girl, but a story about two girls living in a racist time. This ambiguity is another tool used by Morrison to emphasize the role that race plays in our lives and also to point out that it doesn’t really matter.
The first person narration, in addition to limiting our scope, limits our ability to make judgments about the characters based on race. We like to think that race does not impact our perception, but it would be a lie to say that we are not at least aware of the stereotypes and stigmas attached to it. The characters are able to develop freely instead of under our own view of them.
Although we don’t know the races of the main characters, we do learn the races of the other characters which shape our understanding of the group dynamics at play. Especially at the orphanage at the beginning, “All kinds of kids were in there, black ones, white ones, even two Koreans” (139). Twyla’s observation seems superfluous, but it demonstrates that she recognizes other races. Not as a racist, but as a narrator. This foreshadows how she will observe races as she gets older.
The events are not unfolding as she goes; she is recalling them from years past. This forces the reader to place a lot of trust in the narrator. Morrison uses this recollection narration to point out that race relation and memories of that nature are not easily forgotten, but can sometimes be misremembered. For instance, the memory of Maggie, the cook at the orphanage is a constant source of narration crisis. “What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn't black” (149). Twyla’s memory is challenged many times in the story. This specific memory, being about the race of a woman that had been beaten outside the orphanage, is an example of her changing view of race.
Another tool that Morrison uses to create the theme of race and racism is the use of inactive characters. These characters are arguably the most important because of how they shape Twyla’s memory. The most inactive character in the story, Maggie, is the source of all the conflict and racial turmoil between the two girls. “She was old and sandy-colored… I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked. She wore this really stupid little hat-a kid's hat with ear flaps-and she wasn't much taller than we were. A really awful little hat. Even for a mute, it was dumb-dressing like a kid and never saying anything at all” (140). Twyla’s memory of Maggie seems bitter and even hostile. She remembers her as “sandy-colored”, but says nothing else about her race in her description.
Maggie’s role is significant because of what happens in the orchard. As she is walking to her bus, she falls and is laughed at and beaten by the big girls. However, it is later revealed that Twyla and Roberta took part in the beating. There are a lot of interpretations about why they participated, but I believe that it was racial tension and wholesome resentment of their situation that made them beat her.
Twyla recalls at the start of the story, “Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean” (140). It is strange that she should not remember what happened at first, but I believe that it emphasizes her own racial ambiguity and is also a tool used by Morrison to point out that even though a black woman was beaten, nothing in fact did happen there. This is confusing, I know, but it is an allegory for the hundreds of other acts of racism and even racial violence going on at the same time in the rest of the country.
Two other important, though relatively inactive, characters are the girl’s mothers. These two women could not be further apart socially. Twyla’s mom “likes to dance all night” (139) while Roberta’s is sick. We receive a very brief introduction of the two women when they come to visit their daughters for a church service and lunch. Twyla sees her mother first and is embarrassed by her appearance “She had on those green slacks I hated and hated even more now 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” (141). This image appears trashy and poor. From her job description and her outfit it would not be a reach to infer that she is some sort of strip tease dancer.
Roberta’s mother is almost saintly in contrast. “She was big. Bigger than any man and on her chest was the biggest cross I'd ever seen. I swear it was six inches long each way. And in the crook of her arm was the biggest Bible ever made” (142). The image of the cross and the enormous bible allow us to infer that she is a devout Christian and most likely judgmental of others not like herself. In fact, her judgment is even alluded to, “Mary…grinned and tried to yank her hand out of the pocket with the raggedy 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” (142). It is difficult to tell if this is racially motivated or just snobbery, but it can be inferred as one or both. If Roberta’s mother was white than the image of this black, possible stripper, would no doubt offend her, but the same could be said if the races were reversed.
This is yet another tool used by Morrison. By creating this hostility between the two women we are naturally inclined to believe that it is based on appearances. This includes race. These images cannot be attributed to either a white or black female by any conventional stereotypes which further enforce the racial ambiguity of Twyla and Roberta. I believe this is again Morrison trying to point out that race is not a definite determinate of anything. Later in the story, both girls seem to have applied this to their own lives; however they have also not let go of memories that are race specific. This demonstrates a development from the state of things when they were children to what things evolve to over their lifespan.
Although the two girls are obviously separated by class they are also divided by race. The ambiguity of either girl does not give a clear picture of that divide, but its presence is nonetheless noted. The issues that Twyla and Roberta deal with represent issues that countless others dealt with before and at the same time as them. Ultimately, Morrison’s moral allegory about the nature of race and the impact is has in our lives serves to inform us that race is nothing other than the color of our skin.…...

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