“Recitatif” chronicles the friendship of two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who meet in a shelter, St. Bonny’s. The parallels between the girls—including the fact that they are the same age and that both of their mothers are alive but unable to take care of them—create a sense that they are something like twins. This is emphasized in moments when they behave in a parallel, mirroring fashion—such as when they curl each other’s hair in anticipation of their mothers’ visit to St. Bonny’s—and when Twyla says that, on meeting again 20 years after living in St. Bonny’s together, “we were behaving like sisters.” The notion that Twyla and Roberta are related is majorly disrupted, however, by the fact that they are of different races. Although Morrison makes it deliberately unclear which girl is black and which is white, it is indisputable that they are not of the same race. Indeed, Twyla mentions that the other kids at St. Bonny’s call them “salt and pepper,” a fact that illustrates both their oppositional difference and their conjunction as a single unit.
Twyla and Roberta’s familial relationship is thus perpetually out of reach, a representation the girls’ desperate desire for the family that they have been denied. Their relationship is forged against the backdrop of St. Bonny’s, a symbolic “family” made up of children without families of their own, as well as other socially excluded figures such as Maggie. Although the children at the institution develop familial attachments to one another, they are inescapably haunted by the absence of their birth families. Meanwhile, Roberta and Twyla are excluded on account of the fact that they are not “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky,” but instead have living mothers whose flaws cannot be hidden or romanticized away.
Although both women have families of their own as adults, those families do not take up a particularly prominent place in the narrative. The story thus suggests that symbolic familial relations can be more meaningful than families in the traditional sense. Roberta and Twyla’s ambivalent feelings about their own roles as mothers are conveyed by the confusion surrounding the protest over school integration. Roberta makes a sign reading “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO,” leading Twyla to make a corresponding sign reading “AND SO DO CHILDREN”; however, Twyla soon comes to realize that her sign doesn’t make sense unless read in conjunction with Roberta’s. Even as an adult wife and mother, Twyla is still dependent on Roberta for a sense of identity—strong evidence of the familial nature of their relationship.
Aside from the familial overtones of their relationship, Twyla and Roberta’s friendship itself is also intensely charged. They begin as enemies, predisposed to dislike each other because of racial prejudice. Although they become very close during their time at St. Bonny’s, when they meet for the first time as adults their relationship is once again plagued by alienation, misunderstanding, and resentment. Many of these issues are now rooted in differences of social class. Roberta seems to lead an exciting and glamorous life, whereas Twyla at first works as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s and then marries a fireman. Although at some points in the story the women are closer than others, overall they are never quite able to overcome the social effects of their economic and racial differences.
Friendship vs. Family ThemeTracker
Friendship vs. Family Quotes in Recitatif
My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.
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.
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.
I thought if my dancing mother met her sick mother it might be good for her. And Roberta thought her sick mother would get a big bang out of a dancing one. We got excited about it and curled each other's hair.
I saw Mary right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated even more now because didn't she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face was pretty––like always––and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother, not me.
James is as comfortable as a house slipper. He liked my cooking and I liked his big loud family. They have lived in Newburgh all of their lives and talk about it the way people do who have always known a home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
“They're just mothers."
"And what am I? Swiss cheese?”
"l used to curl your hair."
"l hated your hands in my hair."
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.
I didn't kick her; I didn't join in with the gar girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to. We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help. Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody who could tell you anything important that you could use. Rocking, dancing, swaying as she walked. And when the gar girls pushed her down and started rough-
housing, I knew she wouldn't scream, couldn't—just like me—and I was glad about that.
And you were right. We didn’t kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her. I said we did it too. You and me, but that's not true. And I don't want you to carry that around. It was just that I wanted to do it so bad that day––wanting to is doing it.
"Did I tell you? My mother, she never did stop dancing."
"Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well." Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms. When she took them away she really was crying. "Oh, shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?"