Recitatif

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Race and Prejudice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
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Race and Prejudice Theme Icon

Like all of Morrison’s work, “Recitatif” centers questions of racial identity, community, and prejudice. Unusually, however, the races of the three main characters are deliberately kept mysterious. The reader is told that one of Twyla and Roberta is black and the other is white, however it is unclear which is which. Meanwhile, Maggie is describes as “sandy-colored”; Roberta insists that she is black, while Twyla is sure that she is not. The ambiguity of Maggie’s racial identity is a key component of her mysterious significance within the story. It is also used to show the way in which race (particularly in America) is largely an arbitrary social construction, which exists in reality mostly because of racial concepts and prejudices that originate in people’s minds.

The disagreement over Maggie’s race only emerges 20 years after Twyla and Roberta lived together at St. Bonny’s, however even as children they both have a strong awareness of race and racism. When they first meet, Twyla is horrified at the idea of sharing a room with Roberta, “a girl from a whole other race.” Later, Twyla recalls that “even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us. All kinds of kids were in there, black ones, white ones, even two Koreans.” While St. Bonny’s is a racially mixed environment, racial difference is clearly at the forefront of the children’s minds, as is racial prejudice.

Throughout the story, Morrison offers contradictory clues about Roberta and Twyla’s race that serve the purpose of confusing the reader and, in doing so, illuminating the reader’s own assumptions and prejudices about race. When Twyla first meets Roberta, she recalls Mary telling her that “they”––meaning people Roberta’s race—“never washed their hair and smelled funny.” Hair has a very racially charged history in the US. Negative opinions about Afro-textured hair have been a large element of anti-black racism from the slavery era into the present. Yet Mary’s comment remains ambiguous. While black people do not wash their hair in the same way as white people, they also generally spend much more time caring for and styling it, so it’s possible Mary’s prejudice could work in either racial direction. Meanwhile, smelling “funny” is clearly a subjective notion, and betrays no concrete information beyond the fact that Mary is prejudiced against people who are not of her own race—whatever that race may be.

Morrison also manages to obscure Roberta and Twyla’s races during the clash over school integration, a fact that reveals her virtuosic skill as a writer. At this point in the story, there is a distinct socioeconomic gulf between the two women; Roberta lives in a neighborhood among doctors and executives, whereas Twyla is keenly aware that half of the population of her city, Newburgh, is on welfare. However, once again this does not indicate anything definitive about either woman’s race. Twyla explains that “racial strife” had come to the district where she and Roberta live, and that her own son, Joseph, was on a list of students to be bused out of his school. However, even as Twyla and Roberta argue over the policy of busing, it is not obvious what either woman thinks of racial integration in general. Furthermore, support of or opposition to integration is not necessarily indicative of a person’s race, particularly when it comes to the specific issue of one’s children being bused to a different school.

Morrison emphasizes the arbitrary nature of racial identity when, in the midst of their argument, Roberta and Twyla declare, in succession: “I wonder what made me think you were different.” On the surface, this certainly sounds like the language of racial prejudice; both women have generally negative views of the other’s race, but thought that the other woman was “different,” only to supposedly be proven wrong. However, the overall sense of racial ambiguity—along with the fact that both women say the same sentence one after the other—suggests another, contradictory layer of meaning. Out of context, the sentence could be a gesture of racial conciliation: I don’t know why I thought you were different. In reality, we are the same. While the differences between the women are significant, they are also a matter of arbitrary social and economic circumstance. Although race and racism are very real parts of the world we inhabit, beneath the assumption and stereotype, everyone should have the same opportunities and value as people.

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Race and Prejudice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race and Prejudice appears in each chapter of Recitatif. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race and Prejudice Quotes in Recitatif

Below you will find the important quotes in Recitatif related to the theme of Race and Prejudice.
Recitatif Quotes

I liked the way she understood things so fast. So for the moment it didn't matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that's what the other kids called us sometimes. We were eight years old and got F's all the time. Me because I couldn't remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn't read at all and didn't even listen to the teacher. She wasn't good at anything except jacks, at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop pow scoop.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has explained that although she and Roberta first didn’t get along—a fact that was largely due to their racial difference and the prejudice that Mary had taught to Twyla—their social exclusion by the other children led the two girls to become close. Here she emphasizes this idea, noting that although she and Roberta were teased by the other kids and did not perform well in school, this brought them even closer together. At the same time, Twyla’s words foreshadow the pressure that the girls’ friendship will undergo as a result of their racial difference when they grow older, as she notes that “for the moment it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper.” This may not matter when they are children, but it will in the future.

Twyla’s claim that Roberta “wasn’t good at anything except jacks” is proven to be false even within this passage. After all, Twyla begins by saying “I liked the way she understood things so fast.” Far from a minor matter, this is a crucial component to Twyla and Roberta’s friendship. When the women grow older, it is clear that they both feel misunderstood by the wider world, but—at least to some degree—understood by one another. However, this ease of understanding is not valued within the world of St. Bonny’s in the same way as academic achievement, and Twyla and Roberta are thus left feeling that they do not have any important skills or talents.

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We didn't like each other all that much at first, but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped. Even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has continued to explain her and Roberta’s transition from a place of dislike and prejudice to close friendship. Both girls perform badly in school, but bond over the fact that they understand each other without asking questions. In this passage, Twyla describes the girls’ exclusion from the other children at St. Bonny’s, who have a higher social status because they are “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.” Twyla repeats this childlike phrase several times throughout the story, and it serves as an illustration of the peculiar logic that dominates life at the shelter.

Whereas we might assume that Twyla and Roberta would feel lucky to not be “real orphans,” Twyla’s words show that the other children at St. Bonny’s are able to mythologize their “beautiful dead parents” in a way that is not possible for her and Roberta. The fact that the girls must live with the reality of their mothers—each of whom suffers from their own “sickness”—lowers them in the social hierarchy to an extent that trumps racial hierarchy, shown by the fact that “even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us.”

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.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Maggie
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has described Maggie, the racially ambiguous “kitchen woman” who is bow-legged and cannot speak. Overall, Twyla’s feelings about Maggie seem to range between curiosity and neutrality. However, in this passage, she takes on a more judgmental tone, expressing stern disapproval at the “stupid little hat” Maggie wears. This leads Twyla to indirectly blame Maggie for her own disability, saying “even for a mute, it was dumb… never saying anything at all.” This logical slip reveals the ease with which people can come to blame those who are vulnerable for their own difference and misfortune.

Twyla does not blame Maggie for her disability outright, but is fixated on the hat as a visual manifestation of Maggie’s inability to communicate with the outside world, a manifestation that—unlike Maggie’s actual disabilities—Maggie chooses to wear herself. These cruel thoughts foreshadow the eventual revelation that both Twyla and Roberta wanted the gar girls to hurt Maggie, a fact that Roberta eventually claims is as bad as hurting her themselves.

Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich. I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Jimi Hendrix
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has gone to the new gourmet market in Annandale out of curiosity, though she can only bring herself to buy Klondike bars as the other groceries are too expensive. In the checkout line, she runs into Roberta, who is dressed in elegant clothing and carrying expensive grocery items. In this passage, Twyla moves from a dazzled curiosity about Roberta’s new life to a bitter resentment of Roberta on the grounds of her (unknown) race. Rather than seeing Roberta as an individual, Twyla considers her a representative of negative stereotypes about her race: “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.”

It may at first seem more likely that Twyla would make this statement about white people, considering the power and privilege of white people within American society. On the other hand, because of the constant mixed, ambiguous signals regarding Twyla and Roberta’s races, the reader is forced to consider the possibility that Twyla is white and assumes that black people “think they own the world.” This would actually cohere with anti-black racism, particularly during the latter half of the 20th century, when African Americans did experience an improvement in political rights and social mobility. To many white racists, even this marginal progress was a sign that black people were getting too entitled and arrogant.

We went into the coffee shop holding on to one another and I tried to think why we were glad to see each other this time and not before. Once, twelve years ago, we passed like strangers. A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson's on the road and having nothing to say. One in a blue-and-white triangle waitress hat, the other on her way to see Hendrix. Now we were behaving like sisters separated for much too long.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Jimi Hendrix
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Having run into one another at the gourmet market, Roberta asks Twyla to join her for a coffee. Twyla briefly worries about the Klondike bars she has just bought melting in her car, but chooses not to mention them and go to the coffee shop with Roberta. Unlike the scene in Howard Johnson’s, now the two women warm to each other and descend to a joyous, childlike state—“like sisters separated for much too long.”

Twyla’s words emphasize the fact that she and Roberta do have a familial relationship to one another, even though at other points in the story this sense of kinship has seemingly been erased by their racial and socioeconomic differences. This inconsistency is conveyed through Twyla’s language. When describing their meeting in Howard Johnson’s, she and Roberta are just “a black girl and a white girl” who “passed like strangers”; in Annandale, however, they are “like sisters.”

You got to see everything at Howard Johnson's, and blacks were very friendly with whites in those days. But sitting there with nothing on my plate but two hard tomato wedges wondering about the melting Klondikes it seemed childish remembering the slight.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Related Symbols: The Klondike Bars
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

At the coffee shop, Twyla has asked Roberta why she was rude to her when they met at Howard Johnson’s 12 years earlier. Roberta has responded dismissively, saying it was because of the state of race relations at the time. This confuses Twyla, who remembers groups of friends made up of different races coming into Howard Johnson’s all the time. To Twyla, this was an era of increasing racial harmony, particularly among young people—although this opinion only shows that the ability to perceive racial tensions often depends on one’s particular position in society. However, rather than standing by her contrasting opinion, Twyla is embarrassed by the notion that by clinging to resentment she is behaving in a “childish” way—a state of being from which she is keen to distance herself.

Joseph was on the list of kids to be transferred from the junior high school to another one at some far-out-of-the-way place and I thought it was a good thing until I heard it was a bad thing. I mean I didn't know. All the schools seemed dumps to me, and the fact that one was nicer looking didn't hold much weight. But the papers were full of it and then the kids began to get jumpy.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Joseph Benson
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has explained that “racial strife” has come to Newburgh in the form of tensions around the policy of busing, which was used to force schools to integrate. Twyla does not have a strong opinion on the subject, even while the community around her is whipped into a frenzy. In this passage, she explains that her ambivalence is rooted in a negative opinion of schools in general. Twyla’s words echo her feelings about St. Bonny’s and her schooling while there, which she found difficult because she “couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said.”

Twyla notes that “all the schools seemed dumps to me,” a phrase that echoes her repeated statement that she and Roberta were “dumped” at St. Bonny’s. Clearly, Twyla associates schools and other childhood institutions as places of exclusion and social abandonment. This actually connects Twyla’s feelings about schooling to the issue of segregation, although this connection is not made explicit. In both cases, institutions that should provide support, resources, and tools for children become oppressive sites of social exclusion.

"Well, it is a free country."
"Not yet, but it will be."
"What the hell does that mean? I'm not doing anything to you."
"You really think that?"
"l know it."
"l wonder what made me think you were different."
"l wonder what made me think you were different."

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla and Roberta have confronted one another at the protest over busing. Twyla argues that there is nothing wrong with busing, whereas Roberta is outraged by the policy. The women’s argument—which is theoretically about a complex political issue—then descends into childlike bickering. Both women make vague, ambiguous statements, such that it is easy for the reader to lose track of who is saying what—an effect that coheres with the racial ambiguity hanging over the entire story.

This sense of ambiguity is emphasized in the moment when both women say one after another, “I wonder what made me think you were different.” Like an optical illusion, this statement could have two completely different meanings depending on the context in which it appears. In the midst of Twyla and Roberta’s argument, it betrays a logic typical of racist ideology; the idea that any likeable member of a despised race is an exception, “different” to the rest of their race. However, if approached from another angle, the sentence could convey an understanding that race is in fact an arbitrary social construction, and that beneath racial distinctions everyone has the same value. This is significant in light of the trajectory of Roberta and Twyla’s friendship, as the women did start off by thinking the other was “different,” but came to realize (at least as children) that they were in fact as similar as sisters.

“They're just mothers."
"And what am I? Swiss cheese?”
"l used to curl your hair."
"l hated your hands in my hair."

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla and Roberta have continued to argue at the protest. Although they are supposedly debating the policy of busing, their comments have grown increasingly vicious and personal. Twyla exclaims that the women protesting busing along with Roberta are “Bozos,” referring to the bossy and authoritarian woman who was in charge St. Bonny’s. Roberta disagrees, saying they are “just mothers,” which Twyla then interprets as a personal insult.

Things get even more personal when the topic turns to hair, and the intimate act of curling each other’s hair before their mothers came to visit. This is a particularly charged example because of the racial tensions surrounding hair. In the US, Afro-textured hair has often been demonized as “dirty” and “unprofessional,” and the world of black hair styles and care is largely obscured from white people. Thus for a black person to invite a white friend to curl their hair is a particularly intimate act of trust.