Many people read “Recitatif” as a story whose primary theme is disability. Although the main disabled figure in the story, Maggie, at first appears to be a background character, by the end of the story she takes on a central (if still passive) role. Maggie’s disabilities—she is mute and possibly deaf, with “legs like parentheses”—make her even more vulnerable than the children at St. Bonny’s. She is mysterious, and the characters in the story all have different ideas about her. The other children claim her tongue was cut out, but Twyla doesn’t believe them. Roberta and Twyla are also unsure whether she can hear or not, and try to test her by calling her “Dummy!” and “Bow legs!”; however, her lack of reaction is inconclusive, and Twyla is left ashamed at the possibility that Maggie could hear this cruel taunting. Later in the story, it is revealed that Roberta thinks Maggie is black, whereas Twyla thinks she is white. Maggie is thus something of a mystical, surreal figure. Twyla even wonders if “there was somebody in there after all,” with “in there” referring to Maggie’s body. As an adult, she looks back on the incident when Maggie fell and concludes: “Nobody inside.” Because of her disability, Maggie is not considered a person with interior emotions and subjectivity.
Significantly, the children at St. Bonny’s seem to blame Maggie for her disability and defenselessness. Twyla condemns her for wearing “this really stupid little hat”—a hat with earflaps that symbolize her rumored deafness and disconnection from those around her. As an adult, Roberta says that “Because she couldn’t talk—well, you know, I thought she was crazy,” and both Twyla and Roberta admit that even if they didn’t kick Maggie, they wanted the gar girls to do so. Roberta even confesses, “I really wanted them to hurt her.” For the children in the shelter, the sight of someone already suffering from a physical disability causes them to want to inflict even more pain on her. This can be read as a result of the children’s own suffering and marginalization in society; they take out their own feelings of helplessness and rejection on someone who is even weaker and more vulnerable than they are.
Maggie is not the only disabled character in the story, however. In the very first sentence, Twyla declares: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” Roberta’s mother’s sickness makes her unable to take care of her daughter; this is paralleled by Twyla’s mother’s mysterious problem with dancing, a connection that suggests that Twyla’s mother’s obsession with dancing all night is itself a kind of disability that prevents her from properly performing her role as a mother. This idea is emphatically confirmed when Twyla says: “Maggie was my dancing mother… Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night… Rocking, dancing, swaying as she walked.” Maggie and Twyla’s mother are linked by the unusual way they move and from their detachment from the world around them. This in turn suggests that there is something about their ways of moving that is deemed socially inappropriate, which is also a racialized concept; throughout American history, black people have been demonized for dancing and other forms of movement associated with African culture.
Sickness and Disability ThemeTracker
Sickness and Disability 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.
I used to dream a lot and almost always the orchard was there. Two acres, four maybe, of these little apple trees. Hundreds of them. Empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny's but fat with flowers when I left. I don't know why I dreamt about that orchard so much. Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean. Just the big girls dancing and playing the radio. Roberta and me watching. Maggie fell down there once.
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.
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 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.