Race Perceptions in “Recitatif”
By Allison Stuenkel '20
ENGL 160: The Literary Imagination
This paper stands out especially because Allison narrates with such honesty the way in which reading this article helped her think in new ways about both Morrison’s story and her reading practices and implicit biases. Her writing is accomplished and sophisticated, and it illustrates the best of how humanities writing can address an audience outside of the academy.
– Valerie Billing
Growing up in the diverse community of Waterloo, Iowa, I have been exposed to people with different cultures, ethnicities, and races than my own. I absolutely love learning about the unique experiences of every individual and trying to be cognizant of my biases. However, the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison truly challenged the unconscious stereotypes I did not know I believed. In addition to this story, I read “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation” by literary critic Elizabeth Abel, which exposed me to different interpretations about the perceptions of race and femininity in this story. Although my initial reading of “Recitatif” resulted in guilt and self-criticism, Abel’s focus on how fantasies and experiences influence our analysis changed my perspective.
The short story “Recitatif” challenges the reader’s perceptions of race and identity by leaving the race of the two main characters ambiguous. The only clue we get from the narrator, Twyla, is that Roberta is “a girl from a whole other race” and together they looked “like salt and pepper” (Morrison 160). Therefore, the audience is left to decide which character is black and which is white. When I read this story originally, I believed that Twyla was black from the first sentence I read. I thought it was made very clear that Twyla was African American. Looking back, I think it was because the author of “Recitatif,” Toni Morrison, is black, so I unjustifiably assumed her main character would be of the same race. However, I now can point to specific passages that support my initial reading of the story. One crucial line for me was when Twyla reflected on Roberta’s acquired wealth, commenting: “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world” (167). Throughout the history of the United States, racism and segregation played a huge role in how our society functioned. Despite the Civil Rights Movement, white privilege still exists. Therefore, I interpreted the vague “they” in this line as referring to white people and commenting on the advantage white people have. In another scene, Twyla finds Roberta protesting school integration. The two interact, and Roberta claims her right to protest, asserting “it is a free country,” while Twyla retorts, “Not yet, but it will be” (171). I viewed these comments as Twyla hoping for racial equality through integration, while Roberta rejects the busing due to racism.
It was not until I discussed this short story with my classmates that I realized that the race of these two characters was never mentioned. At this point, I felt an intense sense of shame and embarrassment. I pride myself in trying to be aware of my biases. However, I made a lot of assumptions by applying my own context to this story. My emotional reactions made me want to explore various interpretations to “Recitatif” and learn how literary critics reacted to the interesting dynamic between characters of different races.
The author of the literary critique also made generalizations, but she came up with different results. Elizabeth Abel, who is a white feminist writer, viewed Twyla as white because she focused on the social situations in which the characters find themselves. Abel also mentions that most white readers read Twyla as white, while most black readers read Twyla as black (Abel 471). In Abel’s interpretation, Twyla looks towards Roberta’s socio-economic status as something she desires and feels like she deserves. As Abel points out, “Twyla feels vulnerable to Roberta’s judgement and perceives Roberta (despite her anxiety about their differences) as possessing something she lacks and craves” (473). Twyla looks at the good food that Roberta receives and the luxuries of her adulthood and feels inferior despite the fact that American social structures privilege those with white skin. Abel believes that Twyla’s sense of social and physical inadequacy is rooted in a white woman’s fantasy about the ultimate strength of “black women’s potency” (473-474). Abel is using this phrase in reference to Richard Dyer’s analysis that discourses around blackness possess “spontaneity, emotion, [and] naturalness,” and while black discourses see these as general contributions to society, white readers see these as qualities only black people have (qtd in Abel 474, ftn. 4). In Abel’s interpretation, Twyla is jealous because she does not possess the same strong qualities that Roberta has. In order to analyze the scene about racial integration, Abel wrote to Toni Morrison who explained that Roberta may not want her upper-class children to go to school with working-class children. Abel concludes that “Roberta’s resistance to busing, then, is based on class rather than race loyalties” (Abel 476). Overall, Abel focuses her argument on how the two characters react to social situations. Analyzing the way the characters make decisions and address their circumstances helped her determine their races.
In contrast, Abel’s black feminist colleague Lula Fragd viewed Twyla as black because she focused on historical context and cultural practices for her interpretation. She read Twyla’s name as culturally black and made note that “Jimi Hendrix appealed more to white than to black audiences” (Able 474). Rather than focus on the daughters’ interactions, she focuses on their politics as mothers. For example, in the bussing situation, Fragd read Twyla as “politically correct but politically naive and morally conventional” (475). In her interpretation, Twyla supports integration, but does not understand the deep underworking of racism in American society. Roberta, on the other hand, was “the more socially adventurous, if politically conservative” white woman (475). Roberta is adventurous in her life choices but still holds conservative views about integration in schools. Fragd also points to specific instances of coldness from Roberta as “a case of straightforward white racism” and her opposition to integration as “self-interested resistance” ( 475). Fragd thus reads Roberta as racist and selfish. Abel offers these two different interpretations in her analysis of “Recitatif” to illustrate how we perceive race in literature differently depending on our own identities and experiences.
Abel parallels the competition between these two female characters with the tensions that arise between white and black feminist writers. Instead of pointing to guilt, Abel uses her literary analysis to open up a conversation about how our racial biases affect every text we encounter. I found this analysis interesting because instead of being rooted in shame, Abel focused on a new learning opportunity. I was intrigued that my interpretation of the character’s races did not fit the typical interpretation for a white reader. Nevertheless, my interpretation, as well as Abel’s and Fragd’s, are all incorrect. As Abel points out, “the text’s heterogeneous inscriptions of race resist a totalizing reading” (476). Instead of trying to define race, we need to view race through a new lens. When reading any literary work, it is impossible to avoid our unconscious assumptions, biases, and backgrounds. Therefore, as a critic, I need to be careful when reading race onto characters. Abel argues, “there are as serious, although very different, problems with revaluing the literalness of race as with asserting its figurativeness” (488). Characters that exist in books are not real, so they do not exactly fit the mold of having human qualities. Going forward, I need to be aware of applying stereotypes towards characters that are figuratively black or white.
As a reader, my past experiences influenced my interpretations and perverted my ideas of the characters.
As a reader, my past experiences influenced my interpretations and perverted my ideas of the characters. A white feminist reader, such as Abel and myself, can run the risk of “potentially reproducing the structure of dominance she wants to subvert” (Abel 488). This dominance can be the institution of racism or even sexism. By inserting my own experiences into this story, I unknowingly reinforced negative structures such as discrimination. When reading this story, as well as throughout my life, I have tried to work against making generalizations and have attempted to challenge racial discrimination. However, by specifically reading Twyla as black, I ended up strengthening the stereotypes that I work so hard to avoid. For example, I was not surprised at all that Twyla’s mom “danced all night” and that her idea of a meal “was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo” (Morrison 159, 160). Although neglectful mothers can be of any race, I assumed that Twyla must have the black mom because I grew up with black classmates who had distant mothers with different priorities than their children. By believing this assumption and applying it to “Recitatif,” I was reinforcing another stereotype and trapped Twyla by my interpretation of her mother. As Abel points out, “our inability to avoid inscribing racially inflected investments and agendas limits white feminism’s capacity either to impersonate black feminism, and potentially to render it expendable, or to counter its specific credibility” (497). In other words, by imposing my past experiences, I undermined the critical components of Morrison’s story.
Similar to Able, mid-to-late twentieth-century black feminist Audre Lorde was also concerned with attacking structures of dominance and bringing awareness to the racism within the feminist community. At the Second Sex Conference on October 29, 1979, Lorde gave a speech in which she discussed the separation of feminists as a result of racism and homophobia. She argued that in order to work together against sexism, feminists must find unity. Yet, she asserted that “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist;” instead women must “take our differences and make them strengths” (Lorde 215). Feminists must learn from each other in order to fully challenge patriarchal society, and not get tied down by racism. To counteract our assumptions, we need to “produce our readings cautiously and locate them in a self-conscious and self-critical relation to black feminist criticism” (Abel 498). Personally, I need to be conscientious about how I read characters and how being white influences what I interpret. With every piece of writing I analyze, I should reflect on how my interpretation may be damaging to a non-dominant group, and take steps to reconcile my perceptions.
Throughout “Recitatif” there are unifying moments between the two main characters that move past their racial identity. One character, named Maggie, plays a significant role because she is assigned different races by both of the characters. Twyla contends Maggie “was old and sandy-colored,” while Roberta later yells at Twyla for kicking “a poor black lady” (Morrison 161, 172). At first, Maggie serves as a point of contention between the two characters, as Twyla believes that Maggie was not black and cannot recall kicking her, while Roberta remains adamant about her stance. Towards the end of the story, the two characters meet after a long period of time and after some small talk their attention is brought back to Maggie. At the end of the story Roberta cries, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” (175). Only in the last couple of paragraphs of “Recitatif” is Maggie’s race of no importance to these two characters. While they argued throughout the story about her race, it ultimately does not matter whether Maggie was black or white—what remains in their minds is how others treated her. Their mindset moves past race to focus on victimization and guilt. As Abel writes, “race enforces no absolute distinctions between either characters or readers, all of whom occupy diverse subject positions, some shared, some antithetical” (495). Twyla and Roberta are no different in their concern for Maggie. In the end, they are no longer divided by their race—they both share a common feeling of sorrow and worry about Maggie. Another example of their similarities is that both characters are unified in their desire to kill as well as love their absent mothers (Abel 495). Both characters are children of neglect and lived together in St. Bonny’s orphanage. When reading, I need to keep in mind both the uniqueness of people of different races and also their similar experiences. Ultimately, the race of these two characters does not define everything about them—every person is unique. Therefore, our assumptions are typically invalid because of the individual experience of every person and character.
Reading “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison truly opened my eyes to the unconscious stereotypes I possessed and how my past experiences and outlook as a young white woman influenced my interpretations. Through my analysis of Abel’s “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,” I realized the importance of being reflective. Instead of feeling guilt and shame, I need to realize how my past experiences and social context influence my analysis. I am interested to apply this objective approach to other short stories.
Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, Spring 1993, pp. 470–498. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1343961.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” Lesbian Culture: An Anthology, edited by Julia Penelope & Susan Wolfe, The Crossing Press, 1993, pp. 214-216.
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson, Oxford U P, 1995, pp. 159-175.