A Story’ by Toni Morrison – Black Girl Nerds


If you want to talk about “classic moments,” one of my favorites is a 1998 interview that writer Toni Morrison did with Charlie Rose. Like most reporters, Rose pushed Morrison — with questions about race. Specifically, when would she stop writing about race, that is, writing about black culture and black people?

Morrison replied, “The person asking that question doesn’t understand that he’s racing as well.”

I watched the interview several times. Not only did Rose misunderstand what race means, he didn’t realize he had brought a knife to a shootout. He believed he was equipped to outsmart LA Toni Morrison, a black writer who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in a debate about blackness and its relevance in storytelling.

It is this shine that she brings to Recitativehis short story originally published in 1980 in various collections is now published for the first time as a stand-alone book. Recitative tells the story of Twyla and Roberta – one white, one black – who meet at a shelter when they are eight years old. The girls’ races are never revealed.

Morrison herself describes this story as “an experiment in removing all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial”.

Both Twyla and Roberta are wards of the state. They spent four months together at the Saint-Bonaventure refuge. We learn that they are there for different reasons: Twyla’s mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. The story is told from Twyla’s point of view, which may lead you to believe that it must be black, since its author is black. But then I realized that was too simplistic towards Morrison’s complex experience.

I read the book three times. Easy to do, as the story is only 38 pages. No matter how much I read, I absolutely couldn’t tell which of these girls is black and which is white. I kept going back and forth in my decision. In the story, they are seen growing into adult women who occasionally cross paths. I paid attention to their language, to the description of their clothes, their husbands, their jobs, their children, their lives. It’s like a story puzzle, then I felt like I was playing a game. When she called Recitative an “experiment”, she thought.

Like me, I know you are probably wondering what recitative means. It is derived from the word recitative.

recitative | name

1: a rhythmically free vocal style that mimics the natural inflections of speech and is used for dialogue and storytelling in operas and oratorios Also : a passage to deliver in this style

Morrison challenges us to try to decipher ordinary speech. We hear Twyla’s words and Roberta’s words, and although they are separate, we cannot tell them apart as we should. This is how she makes the experiment work – writing the story in such a way that every sentence straddles the fence between what we think of as “black” and “white” vernacular. The truth is, most of us think we can tell a black or white speaker apart, based on tone and rhythm. Morrison disputes this theory.

As readers, we visualize what the characters look like and how they move through the world. In Recitative, it’s impossible. For example, when Twyla says, “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s mother was sick. What kind of mother tends to dance the night away? A black or a white? Which mother is more likely to be sick? Even with their names, is one darker than the other? The story challenges what you think you know and eliminates the biases you have deep inside.

As the story progresses, Roberta leaves Saint-Bonaventure first, and a few months after Twyla as well. Girls become women. Years later, Twyla is serving tables at Howard Johnson, when Roberta walks in with hair “so big and wild” that Twyla can barely see her face. She is wearing a halter top and hot shorts, sitting between two guys with big hair and a beard. They go to see Jimi Hendrix – and we can wonder if his music is black or white. Then, in another twist, we learn that Twyla doesn’t even know who Hendrix is.

Morrison also addresses the cruelty in the story, though not the one that typically divides blacks and whites. She focuses on gender within the system. There is a woman who works in the kitchen in Saint-Bonaventure, Maggie, whose position is considered inferior to that of the girls. Maggie is old and mute. Twyla mentions that she can’t remember if she was nice or not, but that she swayed when she walked because she had “legs like brackets.”

Once, Maggie fell in the school orchard. The older girls laughed and made fun of her, while Twyla and Roberta just stood there doing nothing. “She was wearing this really stupid little hat – a kid’s hat with ear flaps – and she wasn’t much taller than us.” In St. Bonaventure’s social status, it’s clear that Maggie is at rock bottom.

What’s interesting is that Maggie’s downfall doesn’t go away. During another encounter between Twyla and Roberta, there is a conversation about what happened to Maggie. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Maggie has “fallen” to the ground. Roberta claims Maggie was black and Twyla pushed her down. This causes Twyla pain as she doesn’t remember anything from the event. This is another part of the story that we never learn the truth about.

I believe Morrison wants us to feel self-conscious about the way we treat the helpless, even though we too feel helpless. Even though Twyla and Roberta are in a shelter (seemingly helpless), Maggie is also helpless, being old and unable to speak.

This unique short story by Toni Morrison does not disappoint. His writing is brilliant, as always. You will devour it as I did and be well satisfied. It was impossible for me not to want to know the races of Twyla and Roberta. I wanted to sympathize with the two, but as the girls grew into adult women, I was annoyed with the way they pushed each other. I think that’s the angst Morrison wants us to feel. Recitative reminds us that it is not black or white to be poor, oppressed, ignored or different.

The last line of the book is: “What happened to Maggie?” Of course, that’s not meant to be clear. Everything that happened to Maggie was done by people – people like Twyla and Roberta, people like you and me.

Recitative is available on February 1, 2022.


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