“Recitatif,” Toni Morrison’s rare short story re-released as a stand-alone book on Feb. 1, is a brief and brilliant literary experiment.
The story of the book is short and simple: two girls, Twyla (our narrator) and Roberta, go through their little lives. We see five encounters between them at different times and places: at the orphanage where they grew up, the restaurant where Twyla works, a grocery store, a picket line, and a coffee shop.
Recitatif means music that wobbles between song and speech. Each of these episodes is pitched in loftier tones and in more dramatic styles than their ordinary lives. The book, then, is a recitatif of the womens’ lives.
But the book is also a puzzle. It is made extremely clear that one of the girls is Black and one is white, but it is never clear which is which. Morrison keeps the language just vague enough to make the reader unsure. Recitatif has a more archaic definition of “the tone or rhythm peculiar to ordinary speech” — Morrison employs a mix of vernaculars for the two girls so that the reader is left to guess at their racial identities.
Much of Zadie Smith’s introduction is devoted to this puzzle Morrison crafts. In a volume as slim as this — “Recitatif” is only 41 large-print, double-spaced pages — an introduction needs to do a lot of work. Smith’s, which takes up more than half the book, is a masterwork of literary analysis and written style.
“In order to make [“Recitatif”] work,” Smith writes, “you’d need to write in such a way that every phrase precisely straddled the line between characteristically ‘black’ and ‘white’ American speech, and that’s a high-wire act in an eagle-eyed country, ever alert to racial codes, adept at categorization, in which most people feel they can spot a black or white speaker with their eyes closed, precisely because of the tone and rhythm ‘peculiar to’ their language.”
Thus, “Recitatif” is an experiment on the reader. We are left to guess which girl is white and which is Black. Or, we are left reading the thing claiming we don’t see color, or that the race of the characters doesn’t matter. But the book doesn’t let us ignore race: Twyla and Roberta discuss it, meet at pickets for forced integration, and make clear their class differences. Race screams for our attention.
Morrison forces us to guess the race of each character. She thus makes us consciously and intentionally use our racial biases, makes us dredge up the assumptions and categories usually sequestered to our dark subconscious, and displays them front and center. As Smith writes in the introduction, “Recitatif” is “a puzzle of a story, then — a game. Only, Toni Morrison does not play. When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.”
Morrison runs trials of this experiment throughout the book, from the first line: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” We learn immediately after this that the girls look different — one is white, one is Black — but we are not told which is which. We are left to try to guess at it from this moment. In Smith’s words, “Well, now, what kind of mother tends to dance all night? A black one or a white one?”
Twyla and Roberta are first identified by their mothers and their upbringing — they are immediately defined by a difference that exists between the two girls. Later, Twyla says, “if my dancing mother met her sick mother it might be good for her.” These mothers are defined by their adjectives; this is a book about categorization and its consequences. This further complicates our guessing game: Does Twyla mean it would be good for a Black mother to meet a white one, or a white mother to meet a Black one?
There are plenty of examples of this — the little ways that the girls are different are small footholds on which we try to guess the race of the characters.“[Roberta] wasn’t good at anything except jacks,” Morrison writes early, “at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop pow scoop.” Jacks, as far as I know, have no racial connection, but “Recitatif” forces us to try and give it one, any foothold to answer its central question. In a later encounter, Twyla spots Roberta across a diner after years of separation: “Her own hair was so big and wild I could hardly see her face. But the eyes. I would know them anywhere.” What could this mean? The answer is up to our biases. Later still, Roberta tells Twyla she has four stepchildren with a widower: What does this tell us? In most cases, nothing. But within “Recitatif,” every minor detail is an article in Morrison’s grand experiment on our quiet biases by which our minds form racial categories.
For “Recitatif” to work, Morrison had to make Roberta and Twyla very similar, yet just different enough to draw attention. So, the girls reflect each other throughout the story, like how they swapped beds every night at the orphanage. Near the end of the book, Roberta says to Twyla, “I wonder what made me think you were different.” Twyla says the same thing right back: “I wonder what made me think you were different.” They are the same — and then I, the reader, have to wonder what made me think they were different.
The ethical problem of the book’s plot concerns a third character, Maggie, a mute maid who works in the kitchen at the orphanage. The young girls shared a fascination for her. Late in the book, the women reminisce about the orphanage and disagree as to whether Maggie was Black. Neither can remember for sure: Twyla says, “When I thought about it I actually couldn’t be certain. She wasn’t pitch-black, I know, or I would have remembered that. What I remember was the kiddie hat, the semicircle legs.” The book ends:
“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?”
Maggie thus represents the confusion between the characters within the book — Twyla says, “Maggie was my dancing mother.” These categories are not created by omniscient authors, but by people choosing what individual characteristics mean. To Roberta, Maggie’s qualities connoted blackness. To Twyla, she couldn’t be sure.
In Smith’s words, “‘Recitatif’ reminds me that it is not essentially black or white to be poor, oppressed, lesser than, exploited, ignored. The answer to ‘What the hell happened to Maggie’ is not written in the stars, or in the blood, or forever predetermined by history. Whatever was done to Maggie was done by people. People like Twyla and Roberta. People like you and me.”
People, through their biases, create categories. “Recitatif” throws bright light on those biases — grabs them by the nape and tosses them into the arena to be observed. What the hell happened to Maggie? What made me think you were different? Only we, the reader, can answer.
Gabriel Robare is a Senior Prospect Writer and Literature Critic who also often covers productivity and theater. He is also the co-Head Puzzles Editor and a Staff News Writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social @gabrielrobare.