Racial Dynamic in Recitafif
In Recitatif by Toni Morrison, the theme of racism is addressed extensively which is rather common in American literature during the late twentieth century. However, Morrison’s approach is fairly different from other literature that tackles the subject of racial prejudice. Recitatif is a short story about two girls who are raised in a children’s home called St. Bonaventure, but referred simply as St. Bonny’s, after their mothers are incapable of nurturing them. The story scales from past to the present lives of the two girls named Twyla and Roberta, who develop a friendship despite their hatred of each other at first due to their different ethnic backgrounds. The story addresses their struggle with racial prejudice even though Morrison does not overtly state their respective race, which leaves the reader to identify each character’s race personally. After the two leave the home and meet later in life, they find out how they have changed due to their different sentiments and outlook on past and current happenings. Morrison’s works are popular for addressing issues and struggles of African American people in the United States. In Recitatif, she addresses the association of certain characteristics with a particular race and the racial prejudices that have been embedded in the people’s minds. Morrison’s composition and use of imagery and allegories sways the reader into identifying the race of each character through their own stereotypes and prejudice: The racial undertones and remarks made by characters in the story establish that different races are contrasted or defined against each other in society, which creates labels that lead to a rift and racial prejudice.
Morrison’s Recitatif uses racial imagery whilst withholding the ethnic backgrounds of the characters in order to convey the dynamic between black and white people during the period. The speaker of the story, Twyla, states “…it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race” (Morrison 1403). She confirms that the Roberta is not of the same race as her without the reader knowing their respective cultural identity. The racial tension and contrast have already been established in the story without the reader’s awareness of any character’s race yet. Twyla further narrates her racial prejudice that her mother told her how the other race had a funny scent to them from not washing their hair. The racial prejudice in society is revealed in the story through Twyla’s remarks of contrasting the characteristics of the other race with hers. She also remarks how her mother will not approve of the orphanage putting her in the same room as Roberta; we establish that racism was not frowned upon at the time and there was a rift between the races. However, this changes for Twyla as she gets to know Roberta.
Twyla and Roberta’s relationship changes significantly, as kids in the orphanage they develop a friendship, but later in their adulthood, they hold different opinions and views. Twyla says, “…it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper…that’s what the other kids called us sometimes” (Morrison 1404). The statement indicates the impulsive need for people to contrast races against each other which only amplifies racial prejudice in society, evident through the hatred between their mothers. Later in their lives when Twyla meets Roberta again, Roberta and her friends treat her coldly due to their opposing social codes and contrasting ideologies. When she denotes that she does not know who Jimi Hendrix is, one of the friends responds in a manner that suggests Twyla is ignorant of the dynamic in the society. Later when they meet again, Roberta is friendlier than before and ignores their previous unpleasantness and blames it on the period. Roberta says, “Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was” (Morrison 1411), further emphasizing on the contrast embedded in society. Nevertheless, their different recollection of Maggie’s memory further creates a rift and hatred between them despite their newfound friendship.
Contrary to Twyla’s recollection of Maggie’s memory, Roberta recalls that Maggie was assaulted by the big girls back in St. Bonny’s because she was black. Roberta states that Maggie did not fall down as suggested earlier but rather was a victim of hate crime. Roberta’s narrative challenges Twyla recollection of the event which is another instance of subconsciously defining their attitudes and identities against each other due to the idea of racial difference. Roberta’s stigma from racial prejudice towards black people in the past and present shapes her recollection of the narrative, blaming racism for past events such as Maggie falling down. When the two meet again at the protest their contrasting opinions becomes the identifying factors of their respective races; animosity further grows towards each other as Twyla generalizes black people and becomes racially insensitive. Roberta further adds to her narrative stating, “You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground…and you have the nerve to call me a bigot” (Morrison 1413). Due to opposing set of social codes that are not necessarily racial based but rather opinion based, labels are created on each race which further intensifies the racial prejudices.
Twyla prejudice towards black people is seen during the protests, and her opinions of Roberta and Maggie become negative. She confesses, “I didn’t kick her; I didn’t join in with the girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to” (Morrison 1414), which implies her change in attitude towards black people at the time and probably in the past too. Twyla develops strong racial prejudices as she becomes more active in the protest just to oppose Roberta. She narrates how her opposing signs got weirder every day even the other females thought she was a crazy, implying her relentless opposition just because of the idea of difference. Morrison uses the opposing signs between Twyla and Roberta in the story to suggest that the opposing sides coexist and one won’t make sense without the other. Twyla and Roberta’s relationship go through ultimate changes due to the generalization of each other’s race based on opposing social codes or association. The statement further proves that defining races against each other is the reason for the hatred and racial prejudice in society.
In the story, Morrison explores the idea of difference and the impulsive need for society to always contrast or define each race against each other. She withholds the ethnic backgrounds of the characters from the reader to illustrate that we can identify the race of a character through stereotypical remarks, which speaks a ton about the human race. The characters illustrate several subtle instances of defining races against each other through generalization; from the first impression Twyla had of Roberta to the opposing sides at the protests. In the modern day, there is no tolerance for racism. However, it is subconsciously embedded in every individual through stereotypes and prejudices. The goal of the story is for society to self-reflect and evaluate its association of certain characteristics with each race whilst describing them against each other, only when this is accomplished is racial prejudice solved.
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In Recitatif by Toni Morrison, the theme of racism is addressed extensively which is rather common in American literature during the late twentieth century. However, Morrison’s approach is fairly different […]