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.