Toni Morrison

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Recitatif Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Toni Morrison's Recitatif. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born to an African American family who moved to Ohio during the Great Migration. She said that her father’s experiences of Southern racism led him to vocally resent white people. He taught the young Morrison stories from the African American folktale tradition, which she learned alongside classics of the Western literary canon. Morrison received her BA from Howard University and her MA from Cornell, eventually returning to teach at Howard after a stint at Texas Southern University. She married the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison, with whom she had two children before the couple divorced. It was not until she was 30 and raising two children in addition to working as a professor and editor that Morrison first began writing. She joined a writers’ group at Howard, where she workshopped a story that eventually became her critically-acclaimed first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. Some of Morrison’s most famous works include Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. She is one of the most widely-read American writers and arguably the most famous African American female author. She was also the first African American person to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she was awarded in 1993. Morrison’s work explores themes of race, gender, sexuality, and the family, and it often features the perspectives of children. She was unafraid of broaching controversial themes, such as incest, rape, and—in the famous case of Beloved—a child’s murder by her own mother. While her writing often exposes the sinister side of human nature, Morrison also left space for forgiveness, redemption, and optimism. Morrison died in 2019, at the age of 88, of complications from pneumonia.
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Historical Context of Recitatif

“Recitatif” is set during three different time periods, all of which saw notable racial tensions and shifts in culture within the US. The first part of the story, when Roberta and Twyla are eight years old, takes place in the 1950s. During this period, Jim Crow segregation was in full swing and the Civil Rights Movement began. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation. In 1957, the famous “Little Rock Nine”—nine African American students enrolled in a previously white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas—were met with severe protests by white segregationists and eventually required the intervention of President Eisenhower to be able to actually set foot in their school. The next stage of the story is set during the 1960s, when Roberta and Twyla are young adults. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and the Black Power movement gained momentum during this period, particularly following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Meanwhile, the ‘60s also saw a huge cultural shift, with the rise of a rebellious youthful counter-culture which was broadly defined by rejection of conservative social norms, progressive politics, and an embrace of “sex, drugs, rock’n’roll.” A key figure of this culture was the psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, whom Roberta is on her way to visit when she stops at Howard Johnson’s. The 1970s saw marginal improvements in race relations, but black communities still faced high rates of poverty and incarceration, which worsened notably under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1981. Although “Recitatif” was written at the beginning of the Reagan era, it alludes to some of the social issues that were exacerbated during his presidency, such as an increased disparity between the quality of life of the wealthy and the poor. Meanwhile, despite the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling taking place in 1954, the 1970s and ‘80s saw an increase in the use of busing as a method of forcing the racial integration of schools. Although it has subsided since the 1990s, the practice of busing is still in use today.

Other Books Related to Recitatif

“Recitatif” was published in a period of increasing acceptance and celebration of African American literature within global culture. This moment was preceded by several other key movements of the 20th century, such as the Harlem Renaissance, which lasted roughly from 1920-1940, and whose central literary figures included Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Meanwhile, in the 1940s and ‘50s writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright explored themes of racism and segregation, thereby creating a sense of cultural momentum leading up to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. Following this period came the Black Arts Movement, the cultural element of the Black Power Movement. The movement was established by Imanu Amiri Baraka, who, along with his wife Amina, edited the volume Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, in which “Recitatif” was first published. The Black Arts Movement sought to define aesthetic principles that were separate from the white Western tradition, and to liberate black artists and writers from their dependency on white institutions such as universities and publishing houses. Some of the writers that made up the movement include Baraka, Nikki Giovani, and Maya Angelou. Although not technically part of the Black Arts Movement, Toni Morrison is often associated with it, and her work is placed firmly within the greater African American literary tradition. As an editor at Random House in the 1960s and ‘70s, Morrison worked on the texts of other African American writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. One year before the publication of “Recitatif,” Alice Walker published The Color Purple, which was to become one of the most widely-read novels in the African American literary tradition.
Key Facts about Recitatif
  • Full Title: Recitatif
  • When Published: 1983
  • Literary Period: Late 20th century African American fiction
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: Newburgh, NY
  • Climax: Twyla and Roberta’s second argument about Maggie, during which Roberta exclaims: “Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you're not. You're the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground.”
  • Antagonist: Big Bozo
  • Point of View: First person, from Twyla’s perspective

Extra Credit for Recitatif

Opera. The story’s title is the French version of the word “recitative,” which refers to the speech-like passages of opera in which the plot is moved forward.

One of a kind. Although Morrison has published 11 novels and multiple works of nonfiction, “Recitatif” is her only short story.