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.
Race and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Race and Prejudice Quotes in Recitatif
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.
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.
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."