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Racial Dynamics: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

*Published in The Fogdog Review Winter 2010

The concluding line to Toni Morrison’s only published short story “Recitatif,”  ‘‘What the hell happened to Maggie?” is a curious one indeed (Morrison 2698).  Instead of bringing about a resolving conclusion, this question advances the reader’s curiosity to the nostalgic memory of Maggie, a mute woman who worked in the kitchen at the orphanage in which the story’s two main characters, Roberta and Twyla, were raised. The ambiguous childhood memory of Maggie figuratively and literally becomes the central conflict between Twyla and Roberta’s friendship. Neither of the girls ever truly knew Maggie well and neither saw Maggie after leaving St. Bonny’s orphanage, but the memory of the orchard in which the bowlegged Maggie fell reoccurs every time the girls reencounter one another in adulthood. Maggie is not an active character in the story; she is a mere memory for Twyla and Roberta. Instead, Maggie’s character works as a symbol for both Twyla and Roberta’s companionship and conflict and their similarities and differences.

Twyla, the story’s narrator, tells the story from a first person point of view. However, her narration is challenged as Morrison explores the memory of Maggie in the orchard, making Twyla reevaluate this incident every time she encounters Roberta. Twyla and Roberta disagree about the incident in the orchard, and this disagreement forces Twyla to wonder if her memory is deceiving her. The orchard becomes an important setting, as it is the place where Twyla and Roberta become both victims and victimizers. When she first mentions the orchard, Twyla says, “I don’t know why I dreamt about the orchard so much. Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean,” (Morrison 2686).  Here, Twyla’s remark is a bit confusing and is indeed something to look at. As David Goldstein-Shirley says in his article “Race and Response: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’:”

This comment is most problematic. The entire narrative comprises Twyla’s recollections of past events. If, as readers naturally assume when reading a first-person account, the narrator is speaking to them in the present, then why would Twyla say that nothing really happened in the orchard? Telling a retrospective story, she ought to know that the incident with Maggie, which obsesses her throughout the story, is not only significant but crucial (Goldstein-Shirley).

Yes, as the audience progresses further and further into the story, they find that important events did take place in the orchard, and that Maggie’s humiliation, as well as their own, become a central theme to the story. When first discussing the orchard, Twyla describes it as having hundreds of apple trees and being “fat with flowers,” (Morrison 2686). They would watch the older, intimidating girls dance to the radio there. Twyla then describes a particular day when Maggie hurries through the orchard to catch her bus but falls, and all the older girls laugh at her. Twyla feels some sting of guilt as she ventures to say, “We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls,” (Morrison 2686). Twyla realizes, here, the hierarchal power at St. Bonny’s and her own position in it. Twyla and Roberta were intimidated by and frightened of the older girls. Looking back on it, however, Twyla realizes the older girls were merely acting tough even though they were “poor little girls [who] fought their uncles off,” (Morrison 2686). At St. Bonny’s, the older girls group together to victimize Roberta, Twyla, and Maggie. Twyla and Roberta then victimize Maggie by calling her names because they fear being voiceless and powerless like Maggie. They identify themselves with the older, victimizing girls instead of coming to Maggie’s aid.

Twyla and Roberta are able to be victimizers because they have each other. They share the fact that their mothers have left them at St. Bonny’s, Twyla’s because she “danced all night and Roberta’s [because she] was sick” (Morrison 2685). Although each girl is lucky that her parents are not dead, both feel the pain of abandonment and this feeling becomes a key reason as to why the girls become so close despite their racial differences. Although the girls were very close at St. Bonny’s, Twyla describes their meeting again at a diner called, “Howard Johnson’s” as being much less warm. Their racial separation seems to be a much larger issue. When Roberta and Twyla later discuss their militant meeting, Roberta says, ‘‘Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white,” (Morrison 2693). In Newburgh, not only do the two women live in separate sections of a racially segregated community, but also they are of different socio-economic classes. Roberta married a wealthy man that worked with “computers and stuff,” and Twyla married a fireman (Morrison 2693).

When the town becomes divided because of the bussing controversy, the racial and economic differences between Twyla and Roberta become even more apparent. Twyla becomes an advocate for bussing while Roberta vehemently opposes it. Their disagreement over what exactly happened to Maggie is reflected in this public confrontation. Twyla begins to argue with Roberta while Roberta is picketing, and a large mass of people surround Twyla’s car and begin throwing rocks at it. Twyla responds to this aggressive action by saying:

Automatically I reached for Roberta, like in the old days in the orchard when [the older girls] saw us watching them and we had to get out of there, and if one of us fell the other pulled her up and if one of us was caught the other stayed to kick and scratch, and neither would leave the other behind. My arm shot out of the car window but no receiving hand was there (Morrison 2695).

At this point, Twyla identifies with the helpless feelings that Maggie had in the orchard that day. At St. Bonny’s, Twyla and Roberta were close friends because of their feelings of abandonment, but here, Roberta abandons Twyla. Because she gropes for Roberta’s hand only to find it not there, Twyla relates to the same humiliation that Maggie had in the orchard. Roberta then compares Twyla to one of “the big girls on the second floor” by telling Twyla that she is “the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground,” (Morrison 2686, 2695).

The hierarchies that existed back in the orchard at St. Bonny’s now exist in this historical, public scene. These hierarchies, however, are different. The power hierarchies in the orchard concern intimidation and powerlessness, but in the bussing scene, they concern race. Twyla had previously described Maggie as “sandy-colored,” so when Roberta described Maggie as being black, Twyla at once rejects this idea (Morrison 2686). This, however, can lead readers to question the validity of Twyla’s memory. “The problematic accusation also calls into question the completeness of Twyla’s storytelling,” (Goldstein-Shirley). Upon later thought, Twyla admits, “I actually couldn’t be certain. She wasn’t pitch-black, I knew, or I would have remembered that. What I remember was the kiddie hat, and the semicircle legs,” (Morrison 2697). Because Twyla was unsure of which race Maggie actually belonged to, it is obvious that race was not a factor in the St. Bonny’s orchard. “During their childhood, this bond conceal[ed] complications of race and class,” but now with where each of the women are in this tightly-knit community, race takes on a whole new meaning (Androne 136). Elizabeth Abel even says, “Roberta is skeptical about racial harmony.” Is it her overbearing mother’s fault for her abrupt discrimination, or was it her uprising in social class? Regardless, Maggie’s humiliating fall in the orchard begins to take on racial significance because of it.

At Twyla and Roberta’s last meeting at the diner where they run into each other, Roberta confesses to having lied about the two of them kicking Maggie when she was already down on the ground. Twyla had already concluded that she had not kicked Maggie like Roberta said but admits to having wanted to. Her wanting to kick Maggie when she was already down is due to the fact that Twyla connects Maggie with her mother. “Maggie was my dancing mother,” (Morrison 2697). “Twyla and Roberta revise their memories of Maggie in order to transfer their anxieties and anger toward their mothers onto her,” (Androne 134). Twyla connects her repressed hostility toward her irresponsible mother with the pity she had for Maggie. At the diner, Roberta concedes that she had also wanted to kick Maggie. She too identifies her feelings of abandonment with Maggie, comparing Maggie with her mother as well even though Roberta’s mother  is the opposite of Twyla’s mother, Mary. Moreover, both Twyla and Roberta identify themselves with Maggie. “I knew she wouldn’t scream, couldn’t—just like me—and I was glad about that,” says Twyla as she compares her own feelings of helplessness to Maggie’s (Morrison 2697).

The way in which Toni Morrison creates an inactive character such as Maggie, and turns her into a central symbol brings about interesting questions regarding the racial fissure that divides Roberta and Twyla. Through Maggie, the woman begin to release their tumultuous and repressed feelings of St. Bonny’s because of Mrs. Itkin, Twyla and Roberta’s caretaker, nicknamed Big Bozo, and their mothers’ neglect. By connecting themselves with Maggie, a woman they formerly suppressed, they gain a greater understanding of themselves, each other, and their racial differences. However, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” is still a lingering question on their minds (Morrison 2698). It is one that will never be answered, and the women will never be as complete as they would have been if they had not abandoned Maggie and eventually each other.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. ‘‘Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,’’ inCritical Inquiry, Spring, 1993, pp. 471–98.

Androne, Helane Adams. MELUS, Summer2007, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p133-150, 18

Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison’sRecitatif” and Viramontes’s “Tears on My Pillow.”.

Goldstein-Shirley, David. ‘‘Race and Response: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’,’’ in Short Story, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 77–86.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume E. 7th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 2684-98.

 

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Comments on: "Racial Dynamics: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”" (1)

  1. Jennifer said:

    Hello. This is Jennifer from Taipei, Taiwan. Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” is one of the short stories that I will be tested for final exam. I am glad to discover your essay, which is great! It is truly helpful. Thank you for sharing! 😀

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