Recitatif

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Protest Signs Symbol Icon

When the schools in Newburgh are forced to integrate through the policy of busing, Roberta and other local mothers form a protest. Here Roberta holds a sign “bigger than her mother’s cross” that reads: “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!”. On seeing the sign, Twyla—who has driven past the protest by chance—decides to turn around and eventually forms a counter-protest. During this period of counter-protest, Twyla makes a sign that reads “AND SO DO CHILDREN***,” followed by increasingly erratic signs that only make sense in the context of her and Roberta’s shared experiences.

The protest signs play an important role in the narrative, symbolizing Roberta and Twyla’s transformation from powerless (and in Roberta’s case, illiterate) children to adult women with the ability to publically vocalize their opinions to the world. In particular, Roberta’s identification with motherhood functions as an emphatic (if perhaps unconvincing) statement of her assimilation into the adult world of wealth, influence, and responsibility.

At the same time, the signs also confirm Twyla and Roberta’s fundamental incomprehensibility to the world around them. When reflecting on her friendship with Roberta, Twyla repeatedly remarks that she appreciates Roberta’s ability “not to ask questions.” Rather than interrogating each other, the two children simply accept the facts of each other’s lives, strange as they may be. It is thus significant that Twyla makes cryptic signs that address Roberta, and Roberta alone—but displays these signs in public.

The asterisks after “AND SO DO CHILDREN***,” for example, seem to point to the fact that Roberta is not technically a mother, but rather the stepmother to four children. Later, Roberta makes signs saying “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?” and, perhaps most absurdly, “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”. While having little to do with the protest, this question is a motif with which Roberta and Twyla end each of the conversations they have as adults. While Roberta attempts to use her signs to advertise her maturity and responsibility as an adult, Twyla’s signs insistently remind her of the unstable childhoods of both women.

Protest Signs Quotes in Recitatif

The Recitatif quotes below all refer to the symbol of Protest Signs. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperCollins edition of Recitatif published in 1998.
Recitatif Quotes

I brought a painted sign in queenly red with huge black letters that said, IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?. Roberta took her lunch break and didn't come back for the rest of the day or any day after. Two days later I stopped going too and couldn't have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Protest Signs
Page Number: 223-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Although she earlier stated that she didn’t have a strong opinion on busing, Twyla has joined a counter-protest motivated by her argument with Roberta. She makes protest signs that address Roberta directly, and become increasingly strange and difficult for anyone except for Roberta to understand. Her final sign, reading “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”, has nothing to do with busing at all and instead takes the form of the refrain with which she and Roberta have ended most of their conversations as adults—by asking about each other’s mothers.

Twyla’s words in this passage convey the sense that while Roberta has assimilated into a group of others who feel able to vocalize their opinions about political issues affecting their families, Twyla remains an outsider who cannot effectively communicate with others. Her statement that she “couldn’t have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway” can be read at both a literal and metaphorical level. In the metaphorical sense, it implies that Twyla feels like a perpetual outcast and unwanted member of society because of her inability to be “read” and understood by those around her—with the one exception of Roberta.

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Protest Signs Symbol Timeline in Recitatif

The timeline below shows where the symbol Protest Signs appears in Recitatif. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Recitatif
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...when she drives past a school about to be integrated and sees Roberta carrying a sign that reads: “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!” (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
The next day, Twyla makes a sign that reads “AND SO DO CHILDREN****.” She arrives outside the school and joins a newly... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Days pass, and Twyla continues to make “crazier” signs that no one can understand, including one that reads “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”. Roberta leaves... (full context)