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‘Recitatif’ Review: Toni Morrison on Race and Culture

Morrison’s unflustered logic is what I love about “Recitatif,” her short story originally published in 1983 and now being released for the first time as a stand-alone book. “Recitatif” depicts an interracial friendship between two girls — one white, one Black — who meet in a shelter. They have different reasons for being there: Roberta’s mother is sick, while Twyla’s “likes to dance.” In the story, told from Twyla’s point of view, we encounter the girls over many years, but Morrison never identifies either’s race.

As she later explained in “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” “The only short story I have ever written, ‘Recitatif,’ was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” Absence is Morrison’s central point; once racial markers are stripped from the girls, each reader of “Recitatif” will experience the story in a purely subjective fashion.

This subjectivity appears in literary criticism as well. Some scholars insisted they’d cracked Morrison’s racial codes. In an essay called “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,” Elizabeth Abel points out what she thinks are clues to the girls’ races. Ann Rayson, in “Decoding for Race: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ and Being White, Teaching Black,” insists there are “obvious cues as to race.” However, when I went back to “Recitatif” some 25 years after my first read, it was clear that Morrison expertly used racial codes as a shell game: You never can find the prize. After a third and fourth read, I remain confused. Frankly, I like it that way.

When Morrison published “Recitatif” in 1983, it was nearly a revolutionary act to insist that white people had a race, too. Thus, her 20th-century readers probably wouldn’t have searched for signifiers of whiteness, the “normative” identity. (Some might say it remains the norm.) Most readers would have searched for Blackness — its imagery, its music, its vernacular, its performance. Its static, American stereotypes.

Remember, though, that Morrison tells us in “Playing in the Dark” that race is still there in the story. We (her readers) just can’t identify it. Twyla and Roberta — two wounded, mostly unmothered girls, growing up with material and emotional uncertainties — are playing the racial hands they’ve been dealt. Yet because we don’t know who holds which hand, their social realities increasingly become more absurd.

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