An Essay on Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Prompt: At what point in the story do you first begin to make assumptions about the race and class of the two main characters, Twyla and Roberta? Why? Do you change your mind later in the story? When and why so – or not? What is the significance of Morrison’s choice both to withhold information about the characters’ race and class and to have Twyla narrate the story?

 

I made an assumption about the characters’ race rather early in the story. In paragraph 2, Twyla, the narrator, says that her mother had told her that people of Roberta’s race “never washed their hair” and “smelled funny”. This caused me to assume that Roberta is black and Twyla is white. I am a black woman, and I grew up in a suburb that was almost completely white. As the only black child in my class for several years, I had to endure complaints from the other girls about how oily my hair was, and when they found out I didn’t wash my hair daily or every other day like they did they declared that was gross. They didn’t understand that the texture of my hair meant that it needed to be washed less often or that the oil in my hair was not dirty buildup but oil that I had intentionally put there to moisturize my hair and scalp. They also commented on the smell of the products that I put in my hair. So, even though I know that Toni Morrison’s intention when she authored the story was for the reader to never be able to tell which girl is white and which is black, my own personal experiences led me to make an assumption that I feel pretty confident about.

 

I actually didn’t change my mind later in the story. As the story went on, I tried to let go of my assumption, because I knew that Morrison intentionally left out racial information, but my assumption seemed to fit the story as I continued to read. Twyla’s description of marrying a firefighter and with a “big loud family” (par. 54) reminded me of my idea of middle-class, blue-collar white people. Her description of a comfortable life with her husband, James, made me think of the old-fashioned, close knit small towns in America that are mostly white.

 

There were a few more details in the story that made me doubt, though. When Twyla is recalling the time that she and Roberta spent in the orphanage where they met, she brings up an instance where their mothers came to visit them. When Roberta’s mother meets Twyla’s mother, she refuses to shake Twyla’s mother’s hand (par. 31). That made me think of a white person refusing to shake a black person’s hand. I had already decided, though, that Roberta’s mother was black, so it was confusing to have this doubt. In my mind, I found myself wondering if a black woman would also refuse to shake a white woman’s hand. As I did this mental exercise, I realized that this must be exactly what Toni Morrison wanted the reader to have to do as they read the story.