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Compare and Contrasts of “Recitatif” Essay

In “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison, two young girls Roberta and Twyla meet one another at a state home for orphan and foster children. It is apparent from the start that either of the girls is white or black. Even at their young age, they both have preconceived expectations of the other because of their difference in race. However, as each character ages and is developed further, many of their traits could be that of someone white or black, albeit they contrast in personality. As a result of these traits, readers will likely unconsciously try to racially classify Roberta and Twyla only to change their mind a minute later.

“Recitatif” forces readers to abandon the preconceived stereotypes and realize that they are constantly creating racial conclusions that are primarily based on socially reinforced stereotypes. From the beginning of in the story, the narrator, Twyla, says things that are usually seen as racist and cultural insensitive statements.

Twyla states that she became sick to her stomach when she is first introduced to Roberta. She says to the ‘Big Bozzo’ that “My mother won’t like you putting me in here [with Roberta]” (201). She continues on by quoting her mother saying “that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean” (201). As the story progresses, none of these thoughts reemerge from Twyla.

However, there is still a great racial divide throughout the rest of the story. As for Roberta, aside from her mother refusing to shake Mary’s (Twyla’s mother) hand, not much is indicated about her knowledge about or feelings toward Twyla’s race until midway into the story. During the first reunion since St. Bonny’s, Roberta and her friends express obvious prejudice towards Twyla. The conversation begins to digress when Twyla is ridiculed in a very ugly manner for not knowing who Jimi Hendrix was. Roberta says “Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest-Oh, wow. Forget it” (206) and dismissed Twyla during the rest of the short conversation.

During the second encounter some years later, there is still an air of superiority indicated by the way she tries to justify her behavior during the previous encounter: “oh Twyla you know how it was in those days: black—white. You know how everything was” (209). Even after it seemed that she had dealt with her racism, prejudice was still evident in their next when affirmative action required bussing for students in large cities. Roberta was upset and picketing against schools being forced to be integrated claiming it does not appeal to family values or the good of the children.

Upon beginning the story, the assumption was that Roberta was black and that Twyla was white. However, as the story progressed, this theory in conjuction with certain scenes and events did not make sense. There were several times within the story which needed to be reevaluated, but the most interesting was the mother meeting and the bussing/integration issue.

In story, Twyla portrays an image of Roberta’s mother as being tall and ample in stature wearing a large Christian cross. Twyla also notes that Roberta’s mom made a picnic out of her visit by bringing “chicken legs and ham sandwiches and oranges and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta drank milk from a thermos while her mother read the Bible to her” (204).

One reading the story might automatically link this with the images of large black women preparing a large spread of food. One of the dishes, stereotypically, being chicken. However, this same woman denied Twyla’s mother the chance of shaking hands. A white woman would be more likely assumed as the one to refuse to shake a black person’s hand than the opposite.

Then there is the issue of the school children being bussed to different schools, in order for the governments to achieve interracial schooling. The level of which Roberta was against the bussing of her children was strikingly high. Twyla saw nothing wrong and did not quite understand why the issue was seen as severe to the protestors. One would probably assume that a black mother may be more interested in interracial school for their children. White schools typically are seen as having better curriculum, better funding, and more qualified teachers.

Also, one might assume that a white mother would be more prone to bigotry and to protest against the issue. Within all of this, there is the incident of protestors surrounding Twyla’s car and rocking it. In the story, Twyla suggests that the police do not rush to stop the protestors, “The four policemen who had been drinking Tab in their car finally got the message and strolled over” (211), or to disperse the conflict. It would be easy to assume that the policemen where white.

The softness the policemen used to ask the women to move away from the car and return to the sidewalk and made no moves to clear the protest supports a view of white cops, with an unspoken agreement between them and the theme of the protest, asking white protestors to refrain from rocking a black women’s car.

“Recitatif” addresses several problems in society without attaching a character to a specific issue. Toni Morrison shows racial stereotyping as a learned behavior as well as an incessant activity. The most admirable characteristic of this story is it does not draw a particular conclusion nor does it come to a clean resolution. The general framework of the story poses questions that incite the reader to reevaluate one’s opinion of the importance of race to them. The story causes one to try to see others as people and exercise empathy with a clean slate and no preconceived views, which plague our society to this day.

Works Cited
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. Shorter 11th ed. New York: Norton, 2013. 201-214. Print.

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