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Racial Tensions in “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison


“Recitatif” is a short story written by Tony Morrisson, which depicts the experience of Twyla and Roberta. The story uncovers many themes, including child neglect and racial tensions of the era. The plot development allows seeing the relationship between two childhood friends and the different life experiences and views they have on important issues. In “Recitatif,” Morrison tells a story of prejudice and racial tension through the two main characters – Roberta and Twyla.

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The plot of “Recitatif” is centered around the story of two girls – Twyla and Roberta. Throughout the plot, the two meet several times in different settings, and their relationship undergoes several stages. At first, Twyla arrives at the orphanage with her sister, where she meets Roberta (Morrison, 1). Due to their similarities, the girls get along and spend a lot of time together. As they grow up, they leave the orphanage and do not see each other for years.

However, several accidental encounters happen over the years, one in Howard Johnson’s diner and several others in Newburgh. Over the course of years, Twyla’s attitude towards Roberta changes, as she initially despises the girl because of her race, then develops a friendship with Roberta. However, at the end of this short story, Twyla participates in the racially motivates protests against forced integration. Therefore, the plot of “Recitatif” depicts the relationship between two women in circumstances of racial tension.

The main character of this short story is Twyla, as the story reveals mainly her life journey and experiences. Twyla’s life is depicted from the time when she is eight years old until she is an adult with a family and a son. Another character is Roberta, who is found in the shelter as well. The relationship between Twyla and Roberta is notable, because initially, as Twyla is introduced to Roberta, she does not like the girl.

The reasoning behind such attitude is Twyla’s mother, Mary, who taught Twyla that people like Roberta “never washed their hair and they smelled funny” (Morrison, 1). Since Twyla was only eight years old, it is not surprising that she relied on her mother’s advice, at least initially.

The fact that initially, the relationship between the two is bad because of prejudice is notable because t depicts the typical tension between people of different races at that time. Although Twyla seems to overcome this problem by bonding with Roberta and understanding that they actually have a lot of similarities, her mother continues to demonstrate the same attitude. When Mary comes to visit Twyla, she ignores Roberta, which makes Twyla feel embarrassed (Morrison, 5). Although such behavior is inappropriate, further developments of the plot which demonstrate protests against assimilation highlight the idea that such ignorance was common.

The older woman with disabilities, Meggie, is another character of this short story. When Twyla describes her dreams, she specifically notes that she sees the orchard, despite the fact that nothing special happened there, apart from Meggie falling (Morrison, 7). Meggie plays an important role in understanding Roberta and Twyla and their relationships. Further, in the story, Roberta reveals that Meggie was black and that the two girls kicked her when she fell (Morrison, 5; Sustana). This is another element of depicting racial problems that Morrisson applies.

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The story is set in the shelter for children, Bellevue. The setting has an important role in uncovering the characters of the girls. Later on, when Robert and Twyla grow up, they meet only by accident, in different places, including Newburgh, a town where a racially motivated protest took place. An orchard is a place where all the children from the orphanage spend time. It is an important symbol for the story because many of the plot events happen here.

Most notably, when Meggie is hit by the gag girls, they are in the orchard (Warhol and Shuman, 1007). As such, this place goes through a transformation, from children’s favorite place to something terrific. Twyla describes this place when talking about her dreams and says that “the big girls dancing and playing the radio. Roberta and me watching” (Morrison, 4). When Twyla and Roberta meet after several years, the latter reveals that they both kicked Meggie and that she was black.

Next, there are several symbols that the author uses throughput “Recitatif.” The main symbol of this short story is dancing, which Twyla mentions at the beginning. According to the character, she was placed in the orphanage because her mother “danced all night” and stopped only from time to time to give her daughter some life advice (Morrison, 1). Although dancing is a normal activity, in this story, it is presented as something that obstructs Mary from being a mother to Twyla and performing her duties.

From the text, it is unclear if dancing is indeed the work or hobby that Mary has, or if its a way to refer to another activity that Mary does not expose to her daughter. As Morrison describes it, “my mother danced all night, and Roberta’s was sick” (1). Regardless, Mary’s dancing is an important symbol, and in the story, it is compared with the condition that Roberta’s mother has, however, in Mary’s case, her attitude towards her child, similarly to her racial views are her choice.

When examining the characters of other children in the orphanage, one can notice the symbolism as well. Roberta and Twyla bonded because they understood each other easily, both had mothers who neglected them, and had similar problems at school Other girls, however, were placed in the orphanage because their parents died, and they escaped abuse they experienced from their relatives. For instance, the gar girls, who were scary to Roberta and Twyla, symbolize the combination of vulnerability and toughness. They act like adults, wearing makeup and smoking cigarettes, and as the plot develops, they begin treating Meggie badly (Morrison, 3). However, on the other hand, these girls are vulnerable because they ran away from their homes where they were abused.

The figurative language used by Morrison in “Recitatif” allows the reader to bond with the characters because of the simplicity and nature of their characters displayed through the expressions they use. Notably, when Twyla is brought to the orphanage, she describes the circumstances as a result of her mother “dancing all night” (Morrison, 1). Another element that helps create a better narrative is the expression Morrison uses to escribe other girls in the orphanage. Roberta and Twyla refer to them as “gar girls,” which is a short version of a word gargoyles because “Roberta’s misheard word for the evil stone faces described in a civics class” (Morrison, 4). The figurative language that Morrison uses helps understand the characters and their life more comprehensively.


Overall, “Recitatif” reveals the experience of two girls – Roberta and Twyla, who are both neglected by their parents and brought to an orphanage. Unlike other children, the two have parents. However, Twyla’s mother “dances all night,” and Roberta’s is sick and cannot care for her child. Despite being friends as children, Twyla and Roberta’s relationship worsens because of the racial protests and misunderstanding between the two women.

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Morrison, Toni. Recitatif. Morrow, 1983.

Sustana, Katherine. “The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’,” ThughtCo. Web.

Warhol, Robin and Amy Shuman. “The Unspeakable, the Unnarratable, and the Repudiation of Epiphany in ‘Recitatif’: A Collaboration Between Linguistic and Literary Feminist Narratologies.” Textual Practice, vol. 32, no. 6, 2018, pp. 1007-1025.

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