The Exclusivity of Racial Categories: An Analysis of the Racial Ambiguity in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

July 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Post-colonialism is concerned with the effects of colonization on the colonized. In fact, Richard Schur argues “that there can be no simple escape from the effects race, racism, gender, and sexism without some sort of decolonization” (277). One affect involves how language is used to form racial categories. Contemporary ideas of race include the belief that everyone fits into their rightful category. A black person must look and act a certain way because that is the Western assumption. This goes for any race. By refusing to racially identify any of her characters, Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” makes this Western way of thinking difficult. Readers find themselves preoccupied with racializing each character, relying on the characters’ mannerisms, appearances, experiences, speech, etc. Readers search for anything that signals “blackness” or “whiteness” to them in order to properly categorize Twyla and Roberta. In reality, “Recitatif’s” racial ambiguity confronts readers with their own stereotyped ways of thinking, demonstrating how racial categories are Western constructs. In addition, Morrison is careful to go against the structure of racial categories to confuse readers even more, demonstrating the power that writers hold in proper representation. The Western obsession with being able to racially categorize people excludes people who do not fit easily into this category; people like Maggie. Maggie embodies racial hybridity, illustrating that racial categories are not accurate representations of race. Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” complicates the Western ideas of race in order to expose the stereotypes and restrictiveness that are inherent to racial categories. In doing so, “Recitatif” demonstrates how abiding by racial categories leads to misrepresentations of races.

Through its maintenance of racial ambiguity, “Recitatif” challenges the role of the reader. By not explicitly stating which character is black and which character is white, readers attempt to determine where Twyla and Roberta fit within the two categories. Readers rely on their own perceptions of what it means to be ‘black’ and what it means to be ‘white.’ Stanley argues that “[w]omen and people of colour have long struggled against a dominant culture that places them in subordinate positions, defined by being outside of white, masculinist forms” (73). “Recitatif” confronts readers with their reliance on this type of representation. Without being told the race of the characters, readers analyze the text, searching for clues that might put one of the girls in this position “outside of white,” reinforcing that oppressive way of thinking. Elizabeth Abel writes that, as a white woman, she pictures Twyla as white while a “black female feminist critic, Lula Fragd… [is] certain that Twyla [is] black” (471). The difference in these interpretations stems from the difference in each woman’s readership. While Abel focuses on “racial iconography,” she notes that Fragd emphasizes “cultural practices more historically nuanced” (474). In this case, each reader has her own set of characteristics that signify ‘blackness’ and a set of characteristics that signify ‘whiteness’ to both Fragd and Abel. To Fragd, Roberta fits into the ‘white’ category; to Abel, Roberta fits into the ‘black’ category, according to the signifiers. These signifiers work to help readers racialize either girl based on their position “outside of white.” I argue that these signifiers are the stereotypes that “Recitatif” challenges.

Abel pictures Roberta as being different from herself, especially during the Howard Johnson scene. In this sense, Abel is ‘othering’ Roberta and placing her in that position “outside of white.” Roberta is described as having hair “so big and wild” it covers her face, and “earrings the size of bracelets” (6). Abel concludes that in this moment “Twyla’s sense of inadequacy vis-à-vis Roberta, like her representation of her mother’s inferiority to Roberta’s, signal[s] Twyla’s whiteness to [her] by articulating a white woman’s fantasy… about black women’s potency” (474). This is one reading of Roberta and I argue, is representative of the readership “Recitatif” challenges. Abel relies on her own ideas of what being ‘black’ and being ‘white’ means to her, projecting her own racial categories onto Twyla and Roberta. Abel cannot see herself in Roberta and therefore concludes that she must be different, racially. What this story emphasizes, though, is that relying on stereotypes as Abel and Fragd do is dangerous in the sense that it ‘others’ people. Abel decides that Roberta is black simply because her appearance causes her to stand out. Roberta’s hair is wild, unlike what she pictures white women’s hair to be. Due to the fact that Roberta does not appear to be recognizably white, Abel concludes that Roberta must be black because a white girl cannot have “wild hair” or “big hoop earrings.” Abel is arguing that Roberta’s characteristics do no signify whiteness, they signify otherness and therefore, blackness. In this sense, Abel is creating racial categories based on stereotypes and what she views whiteness not to be. This is important because it places white in the superior position to black. If Roberta does not display any signs according to ‘whiteness –’ or rather, what the racial category entails – then by default, she is black. She is not said to be displaying signs of ‘blackness,’ but instead, is described as showing signs of what white is not. This way of thinking makes “otherness” synonymous with “blackness,” a view that “Recitatif” rightfully challenges in its racial ambiguity. Relying on these signifiers is dangerous because they reinforce oppressive stereotypes.

Though what makes Abel consider Roberta to be black are signifiers, I argue that these signifiers resemble stereotypes in the sense that readers such as Abel hold images and ideas of what ‘black’ looks like and what ‘white’ looks likes. Shanna Greene Benjamin explains that “the impulse to ‘solve’ the racial conundrum permeating ‘Recitatif’ reveals an underlying theme central to Morrison’s short story. Readers want to be able to categorize characters one way or another, to ‘know’ race, and they will go to great lengths to assign racial categories if the writer fails to do it for them” (88). The story, then, becomes about racial tropes: who fits into which trope and what makes up these tropes? “Recitatif” wants to challenge the second question. The story forces readers to question their own readings of Twyla and Roberta; making readers ask themselves why they choose to categorize Twyla as white and Roberta as black or vice versa. The answer is: their own stereotypes. Racial categories enable stereotypes, therefore, readers are forced to question their own stereotypes when reading “Recitatif.” When Abel states that Roberta is black because she has “wild hair,” she is reinforcing the stereotype that all black people have “wild hair” even though wild hair is not inherent to any race. What happens to the black girl who does not have this type of hair? Racial categories – and the stereotypes that they enable – create a space where people who do not fit into the tropes of either category are left. These stereotypes are oppressive as they ‘other’ people. Stereotypes reinforce the notion that blackness is dependent on being different from whiteness. Racial categories create a disconnection between people, not allowing for any hybridity – any deviance from the accepted norm. By reading Twyla and Roberta as characters who fit into either race category, readers expose their own reliance on these oppressive tropes. Though critics such as Abel attempt to assign a race to Roberta and Twyla, it is clear that any attempt is futile as each girl resides in that space between races.

Morrison understands the power that she has as a writer; how people – how raced people – are represented is ultimately up to the author. Morrison points out in her own book on literary criticism that she is “a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language” (x). As colonization occurs, marginalized peoples are forced to adopt the language of their oppressors – a language which is often used as a tool to further oppress marginalized people. Morrison clearly understands that in her own writing, she must be wary of correct representation. In his book The Negro Character in American Literature, Nelson is concerned with how the African American presence in America during slavery and abolition is presented as a comical, inferior character. Though I argue that the specific tropes Nelson illustrates are not as apparent in more recent works, racial tropes still exist. “Recitatif” challenges the tropes that writers rely on in order to represent race. As Stanley writes, “race studies, in [its] attempt… to challenge physical and cognitive stereotypes and the material confines associated with these stereotypes, often identify charges that… people of colour are disabled as a sign of disempowerment, a sign that they must transcend” (73). Stanley is illustrating the importance of language in proper representation, placing emphasis on stereotypes. As I have argued, readers preoccupy themselves with looking for stereotypes to signal Twyla’s and Roberta’s race; however, by not conforming to these stereotypes, Morrison makes it impossible for one character to be seen as completely empowered or disempowered and therefore, makes it difficult for readers to racialize the two girls. The tropes that Morrison uses continuously contradict each other, confusing readers and further demonstrating the limited way of thinking that racial categories enable.

Morrison is aware of the racial categories as well as the signifiers that readers rely on. I argue that she uses her knowledge in order to expose how exclusive and limiting this way of thinking is. Morrison writes that, historically, the purpose of the “American Africanism” presence is to “[establish] hierarchic difference” (63) which I argue “Recitatif” points to when Twyla explains that Roberta cannot read (2). “Recitatif” transcends these hierarchic differences by focusing on the similarities between Twyla and Roberta. Due to racism and discrimination, black people are often not given fair and equal access to quality education. Slavery prevents education, abolition makes it inaccessible, and, though education appears to be equally accessible to both Roberta and Twyla, I argue that Morrison incorporates the element of illiteracy to illustrate how, even with better access to education for everyone, writers tend to rely on the trope of an uneducated African American. In this sense, Stanley’s argument that people of colour are usually associated with a disability is evident within “Recitatif.” Readers will expect to associate blackness with the disempowered character; an uneducated character would reflect this disempowerment perfectly. This trope of an uneducated black character allows for a hierarchy to form where the educated white character is above the illiterate black character. This trope is clearly a misrepresentation and yet, is still widely accepted. Morrison challenges many literary tropes – and with it, racial categories – within “Recitatif,” including this one. Twyla also admits that she, herself, does not excel at school because she cannot remember anything (2). Instead of making one girl smarter than the other, Morrison creates similarities between the two. There is no smarter character; there is no superior character. Roberta and Twyla are too similar for readers to racially categorize. This is important because Morrison is presenting both a black and a white character in a similar fashion instead of writing them to fit into completely separate categories. Readers expect Morrison to use education in order to represent the race of either girl; however, in this instance Morrison denounces the tropes that writers have come to rely on by not conforming to them.

By not conforming to racial categories, “Recitatif” confuses its readers. In his book, Middleton writes that “[t]he task which lies ahead… is to lift the black self out of the [language] and to affirm these meanings in a medium which can truly be called a black text, a text whose margins are ruled by the black logos” (47). While this argument tries to separate white and black in literature, I argue that “Recitatif” undermines this. Middleton is reinforcing the notion that a “black text” must incorporate elements of “black logos,” which I argue still relies on the use of racial categories. “Recitatif” is not attempting to articulate that white and black people are the same – any American history textbook shows that this type of statement is incorrect – but rather, articulates the constructs of race. I use education as an example of tropes in my previous paragraph; however, there are many other instances where the tropes in “Recitatif” work to further confuse readers. Readers are meant to be confused. “Recitatif” makes the act of racializing the two girls very difficult by making them appear similar. Morrison does not keep Twyla in one racial category and Roberta in the other. Instead, each girl can easily fit into either category. “Recitatif” does not conform to the traditional ways of writing about race. Neither Twyla nor Roberta can fit perfectly in either racial category, illustrating that these categories are not accurate representations; they are constructs in the same way that feminist theory argues that femininity and masculinity are social constructs. These categories are meaningless when analyzed and work to further oppress marginalized peoples. Racial categories are restrictive as racial identity is not a fixed concept. Racial identity is different for everyone, including for Roberta and Twyla, as evidenced by their confused racialization of Maggie.

Each girl has a connection to Maggie. Not only does Maggie work at St. Bonny’s but she also reminds Roberta and Twyla of their mothers. When Roberta explains her reasoning for thinking that Maggie is black, Roberta tells Twyla that “[she] just remembers her as old, so old. And because [Maggie cannot talk]… [Roberta thinks Maggie] is crazy. Maggie [is] brought up in an institution like [Roberta’s] mother [is]” (19). As Abel argues, “[t]he two girls’ readings of Maggie become in turn clues for our readings of them” (472). If Roberta thinks that Maggie is black because of the similarities between her and Roberta’s mother, then it is logical to conclude that Roberta is black. I argue that there needs to be more focus paid to the ‘why;’ why does Roberta envision Maggie to be a black woman? If Roberta is black, then she has her own idea of what being black means. In forming her own race category, Roberta decides that Maggie is black simply because she sees her mother – and herself – in Maggie. On the other hand, if Roberta is white then perhaps her fear of being similar to Maggie – a woman who becomes a representation of her absent and sick mother – causes her to separate herself from Maggie. Roberta maintains this separation by categorizing her as black, something that Roberta can never be. If this is true, then Roberta is othering Maggie, characterizing her as black because she wants Maggie to be different from her own white self. Whether Roberta considers Maggie to be black because she, herself is black or because she is othering Maggie, Roberta is still creating her own racial category and determining Maggie’s race-based off of how well she fits into either category. It is important, though, that Roberta creates these racial categories – they are not fixed – and therefore, Roberta’s categorizing of Maggie is debatable.

Twyla, similar to Roberta, also sees her mother in Maggie, referring to Maggie as her “dancing mother” (17). Unlike Roberta, though, Twyla is not convinced that Maggie is black. In fact, Twyla is “puzzled by [Roberta] telling [her] Maggie [is] black” (17). Again, Twyla might see Maggie as white because Twyla’s own mother is white, similar to how Roberta concludes that Maggie is black. What is important is that Twyla has differing racial categories to Roberta’s, further demonstrating that racial tropes, stereotypes, and categories are not fixed; they are indefinite constructs misrepresenting the black and white presence within literature. Both Roberta and Twyla showcase conflicting ideas of race, proving that racial categories are not fixed, they are constructs. Conversely, Twyla’s own negative feelings associated with her mother may motivate her to distance herself from her mother. Twyla ‘others’ her mother when she draws attention to her clothing during the church scene, similar to when Abel others Roberta for her hair and earrings (4). In this sense, Twyla’s ‘othering’ of her mother might translate into her ‘othering’ of Maggie, similar to how Roberta could be othering Maggie in order to distance herself from Maggie. An argument can be made that Twyla considers Maggie to be white because Twyla does not want to see more of herself in Maggie. Twyla and Roberta are both confused by their own racial categories leaving them, and the readers, in confusion.

There is no answer at the end of “Recitatif” regarding Maggie’s race. Instead, Maggie appears to fit into both racial categories, according to Twyla and Roberta. The debate over whether Maggie is white or black is extremely important. Like “Recitatif’s” readers, Twyla and Roberta are consumed with categorizing Maggie as either black or white. This deliberation illustrates the fact that literature and language itself disallows any discrepancy. There is no in-between for both the reader’s racialization of Twyla and Roberta, and the girls’ racialization of Maggie. Racial categories reflect the idea of mono-culturalism; however, by not maintaining racial ambiguity, Recitatif rejects the idea of mono-culturalism. As Homi Bhabha introduces the idea of hybridity, this text reflects that same principle: it is not always simply black or white but rather, black and white. The difference is that mono-culturalism creates a distinct separation between black and white, not allowing for any cross over. Cultural hybridity allows for a connection to form. Maggie is described as being neither black nor white. This confusion does not signal that Twyla and Roberta have faulty memories, but rather that they do not have a way of defining someone who is neither black nor white, yet is both. This restrictiveness is caused by the ideas surrounding mono-culturalism. Maggie represents the hybridity that Bhabha explains, rejecting mono-culturalism. The reason why the two girls are confused when they attempt to racialize Maggie is because racial categories do not allow for hybridity. Neither Twyla nor Roberta fit into one racial category, and as both girls learn, neither does Maggie. “Recitatif” ignores the typical racial categories, rendering them meaningless, and exposing how readers and writers have come to rely on these unstable constructs.

Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” defies conventional racial categories that Western culture establishes. The racial ambiguity within the story calls the readers’ own reliance on stereotypes into question. If race is not explicitly stated, readers must rely on their own perceptions of what black or white looks like. In attempting to racialize Twyla and Roberta, readers are faced with their own use of racial categories. Readers attempt to draw words and phrases out of the text that signify the ‘blackness’ or the ‘whiteness’ of either girl, exposing the stereotypes that arise from forming racial categories. Attempts to racialize Twyla and Roberta are shown to be futile as Morrison establishes the power she has to represent the black and white presence. By not complying to traditional ways of writing raced characters, Morrison articulates that relying on racial categories is a misrepresentation. Racial categories are exclusive; people who do not fit into them – people like Twyla, Roberta, and Maggie – are left outside of these categories and seemingly do not belong in society. Similar to how readers attempt to racialize Twyla and Roberta, Twyla and Roberta find themselves attempting to racialize Maggie. The racial categories that Western society offers do not allow for Maggie to belong to either the black or white category and yet, she represents both. “Recitatif” exposes the exclusivity of Western constructs of race by not conforming to traditional conceptions about race.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, 1993, pp. 470–498., www.jstor.org/stable/1343961.

Benjamin, Shanna Greene. “The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Analysis of Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif.’” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 40, issue 1, 2013, pp. 87–106. Project MUSE, Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.library.carleton.ca/article/507678/pdf

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12.1, 1985. 144-165. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. 1st Vintage Books ed., Vintage Books, 1992.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” Chandler Unified School District, 1983, https://www.cusd80.com/cms/lib/AZ01001175/Centricity/Domain/1073/Morrison_recitatifessay.doc.pdf. Accessed 3 December 2017.

Nelson, John Herbert. The Negro Character in American Literature. 1st AMS ed., AMS Press, 1970.

Powell, Timothy B. “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page.” Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. David L. Middleton. Vol. 30, 1997, pp. 45 – 60.

Schur, Richard L. “Locating ‘Paradise’ in the Post-Civil Rights Era: Toni Morrison and Critical Race Theory.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 45, no. 2, 2004, pp. 276–299. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3593567.

Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto. “Maggie in Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’: The Africanist Presence and Disability Studies.” MELUS, vol. 36, no. 2, 2011, pp. 71–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23035281.

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