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Toni Morrison’s Recitatif

 Recitatif:  Memory, childish perspectives and race

The issues memory, childhood perspectives and racial and social equality, though not overtly discussed in Toni Morrison’s short story Recitatif are the central themes in her writing.  The story revolves around two little girls Roberta and Twyla who meet at a state orphanage – St. Bonaventure – after they were taken into the temporary custody of the state when both their mothers were considered unfit to have primary custody.  “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.  That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s…when Roberta and me came, there was a shortage of state kids, so we were the only ones assigned to 406…”  It is becomes eventually clear that Twyla and Roberta are from different sides of the track, different races and different socio-economic sectors of society.  The girls would never have met if Roberta’s single mother had not been “sick” and Twyla’s single mother derelict in her duties for leaving her small child all along to go dancing all night – either as a stripper or a party girl – I’m not sure which is worse. 

 

We meet Twyla and Roberta when both were eight years old and meeting for the first at St. Bonny’s – two girls from different walks of life thrown together by circumstances. “So for the moment it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that’s what the other kids called us sometimes.”  Recitatif provides several different snap-shots in the lives of both girls as their universes collide several times over the years, and how their interpretation of common threads in their past differ.  Both of their memories are colored by their different backgrounds and by the color of their skin.  If I were to say which girl was black and which girl was white, I would be guilty of stereotyping especially since there is enough evidence and ambiguity to support a claim on either side of the playing field.  But I’ll stick my neck out and say that Twyla was black and Roberta was white.  Why?  Most black kids don’t have food fads. Eat it or else… is a common threat in black households, therefore food deprived Twyla has a large appetite, while Roberta is a picky eater.  “The food was good, though. At least I thought so. Roberta hated it and left whole pieces of things on her plate; Spam, Salisbury steak – even Jell-O with fruit cocktail in it. Mary’s (Twyla’s mother) idea of supper was pop-corn and a can of Yoo-Hoo.  Hot mashed potatoes and two weenies was like Thanksgiving for me.”   Secondly, it is also more likely that a black small town woman would be out dancing all night, than a white one.  Thirdly, it is also highly likely for white small town woman to act the way Roberta’s mother acted that Sunday just before chapel when both girls tried to introduce their mothers.  “Mary, simple-minded as ever, grinned and tried to yank her hand out of the pocket with the raggedy lining to shake hands…  Roberta’s mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too.  She didn’t say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her bible free hand and stepped out of line walking…” Shortly after this episode Roberta returned to her mother.

            The next time the two girls cross paths, Twyla was working as a waitress at Howard Johnson Hotel and Roberta was passing through “with her to hairy friends” on her way to a Jimmy Hendrix Concert.  Here the issue of social classes rears its head.  Roberta is already  married, and settled into a large family in Newburg a blue color suburb in the Hudson Valley area of New York.  Newburg has a large population of blacks and a historically disproportionate number of people on welfare and housing assistance.   Her husband’s family has lived in the area for a very long time. “His grandmother has a porch swing older than his father and when they talk about streets and avenues and buildings they call them names they no longer have.”  Meanwhile, Roberta is living a life of leisure, going to rock concerts and the like, not a care in the world.  Twyla goes over and speaks to her but has the feeling she is being rebuffed because of her waitress uniform and station in life.  “I was dismissed without anyone saying goodbye, so I thought I would do it for her. How is your mother?”

            The next time the girls meet, towns on the outskirts of Newburg were on the upswing and scores of IBM executives had moved into the area.  A Food Emporium had opened to serve the needs of the nouveau riche.  Turns out chauffeur driven, “servants and all” Roberta had married a rich widower with four children and was living the life of relative luxury over in Annandale, a white color neighborhood on the outskirts of Newburg.  The girls are happy to see each other, are talking and laughing.  Twyla is living the moment but is introspective – “once twelve years ago, we pass like strangers. A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say…”  They promise to keep in touch.

            The next time Roberta crosses Twyla’s path was in the middle of racial strife caused by a proposal to desegregate schools by bussing black children white schools and visa-versa.   The whole brouhaha was not fully understood by Roberta, but she sprang into action when after meeting Roberta at the picket line has a disagreement about the value of bussing children to other schools out the area, and whether or not she kicked Maggie – the bow legged mute who worked in the kitchen back at St. Bonaventure state home, when they were eight years old.  What follows next is a ridiculous picketing showdown, with Roberta against bussing and Twyla for bussing.  “My signs got crazier each day and the women on my side decided that I was a kook. They couldn’t make heads or tail out of my brilliant screaming posters. Twyla and Roberta meet once more once snowy Christmas Eve, Roberta was dressed to the nines and more than a little drunk, however she was anxious to clear the air with Twyla assuring her that she had wrongly accused her of kicking Maggie.  Again they reminisce.

            A defining moment in the essay is the meeting at the Food Emporium, where Twyla muses “I placed the groceries and kept myself from glancing around to check Roberta’s progress. I remembered Howard Johnson’s and looking for a chance to speak only to be greeted with a stingy “wow.” But she was waiting for me and her huge hair was sleek now, smooth around a small, nicely shaped head. Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich. I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought.” –  Twyla’s thoughts are typical of an African American who look at whites are having everything easy.  When you look at it she’s right too.  Blacks who become successful face incredible odds and have to prove themselves time and time again in order to get ahead.  Roberta learned to read long after Twyla could, but because she is white gets a leg up in life while Twyla does not. “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.” 

 

Equal Pay

Equal Pay

By Fern White

We work side-by-side on the assembly line down by the plant

Lightning fast we insert parts that fuel the zeros and ones

That zooms down the info highway

We grab lunch at 12:00 then knock off at 5:00

Then jump in out trucks for the long evening drive

We do the same things to get the job done

So, how come your hour is a lot more plum?

 

Do your eggs, your milk cost more than mine?

Is you gas, your oil, a lot more prime?

Does the air you breathe come at a premium?

I’m just wondering, ‘cause I don’t pay none

We do the same things to get the job done

So, how come your hour is a lot more plum?

 

We stand at the machine 8 hours a day

Side by side we conquer the computer world’s stays

Does your instep, your heel swell and throb much more than mine,

And when our hands get nicked but sharp objects

Do you bleed liquid gold, and I blood, do you?

We do the same things to get the job done

So, how come your hour is a lot more plum?

 

I am equal to you: though you are he and I am she

I am equal to you; I too am the bread winner of my family

I am equal to you, my 77 cents does not equal your dollar

I am equal to you, but why is progress so slow in coming?

We do the same things to get the job done

So, how come your hour is a lot more plum?

 

 (Author’s note, this poem won second place in the CUNY Kingsborough Poetry Competition in Spring 2013

Toni Morrison’s Beloved — My take on this iconic book

Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

The Power of Love, the Power of Memory

The novel Beloved written by Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison; chronicles a 20 year period (1850-1875) in the life of Sethe a slave women – the dehumanizing horrors she endured, the events that triggered her escape to freedom as well as events that took place after her escape.

Sethe was born the state of Kentucky to an African slave woman she hardly knew.  Her mother was pointed out to her a few times by her care-giver and an eight year old girl her also cared for her.  Memories of her childhood are suppressed and most of what she cares to remember begin at age 13 when she was sold to the Garners proprietors of Sweet Home, a plantation where a “lax” sort of slavery was practiced; because of this, Sethe and the other slaves Halle, Sixo, Paul D, Paul A and Paul F are “treated well.” Before Sethe’s arrival, there were no female slaves at Sweet Home. Former house slave Baby Suggs had been freed.  Her son Halle, the last of her eight children had hired himself out on Saturdays and Sundays for five years to buy her freedom.  Sethe was her replacement.  Sethe was the object of desire for all of Sweet Home’s men. It took her a year to make up her mind, but she chose Halle for her husband. This is in part because she admired the devotion he showed by buying his mother’s freedom.  On the eventual death of Mr. Garner, Mrs. Garner, herself ailing, asked her brother-in-law to help her run the farm.  The man, dubbed school-teacher by the slaves, along with his nephews became a dehumanizing and sadistic force turning their “idyllic existence” into a life of torture. The slaves plotted to escape.

During this escape plot, Sethe who is in an advanced state of pregnancy sends her three children ahead of her to her mother-in-law’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This includes her sons Howard and Buglar and her yet to be named young daughter. She plans to join them there later. However, the planned escaped is found out by school-teacher and some of the slaves are caught.  Sixo and Paul F are murdered, but Paul D is brought back to the plantation. A bit, not unlike that of a horse is affixed to his mouth.  Fresh from the capture of Paul D and the murder of Paul F and Sixo, the Garner boys rape Sethe in a barn. One holds her down while the other ‘stole’ the breast milk she is saving for her baby who’s is gone ahead of her to Ohio.  School-teacher watches the whole thing and takes notes. School-teacher is not the only one watching. Unbeknownst to Sethe, and her attackers, Halle her husband lays hidden in a loft witnessing the act. He is paralyzed by what he sees and it drives him out of his mind. It took her nearly 20 years to find out what happened to her husband.  Sethe still shares a good rapport with Mrs. Garner and reports her family member’s transgression to her.

Sethe is whipped within an inch of her life for talking.  Despite the open wounds on her back and being almost nine months pregnant, Seth escapes across the Ohio River.  She would have died except for the assistance of Amy Denver, a white girl on her way to Boston to find velvet, and who tends her wounds and helps her to deliver her baby. She calls the baby Denver in Amy’s honor.  Following her dangerously eventful journey, Sethe arrives atBaby Sugg’s house – 124 Bluestone Road, where she spends 28 wonderful days in freedom – “Days of healing, ease of talk. Days of company: Knowing the names of 40, 50 other Negroes…One taught her the alphabet; another to stitch.  All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day. ” (111) Tasting this freedom adds another dimension to Sethe’s already complex personality. One fateful day, school-teacher, a nephew, a slave catcher and the town’s sheriff show up at 124 to take Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home.  Sethe runs to the back shed where she attempted send them back to God.  This is what the four saw; Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time, when out of nowhere- in the ticking time the men spent staring at what there was to stare at- the old nigger boy, still mewing, ran through the door behind them and snatched the baby from the arch of its mother’s swing.” (Pg. 175)  Denver is unharmed, while Howard and Buglar recover, however, her “crawling already?” baby girl did not make it.  Sethe is taken to jail.  Following Sethe’s hard-fought freedom and return to 124, a baby ghost unleashes its fury on the house.  Eighteen years later, it is chased away when Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men turns up out of the blue.   Later, the ghost, needing to be near its mother, returns in the body of a young woman, and is welcomed back into the house on Bluestone Road.  She told the household of Sethe, Paul D and Denver that her name is Beloved.  Sethe does not or chooses not to recognize that this is the name carved on the headstone of her dead baby. Denver however, recognizes Beloved as her dead sister.

 

Can a woman’s tender care

Cease towards the child she bares?

Yes, she may forgetful be,

Yet will I remember thee

            (Cowper)

The central story in Beloved around which all the other vignettes revolve, is Sethe’s murder of her baby daughter.  She demonstrates that she loved her children fiercely, but then turned around and tried to kill them. The knee-jerk reaction would be one of disgust and scorn. But faced the unique sets of circumstances, why wouldn’t she.  In her defense, Sethe and the other main characters in Beloved are broken people, broken by the circumstances of their birth. Buby Suggs bore eight children; all except Halle were traded away to other farms, never to be seen again the knowledge of that broke her.  The only family Paul D knew were Paul F and Paul A the other men of Sweet Home – not having roots broke him.  From the day she was born, Sethe has been systematically dehumanized, broken-in, she saw her mother maybe less than a dozen times, the last time she saw her mother she was a decomposing corpse who had been lynched. By virtue of the life she was born into, Sethe was broken person.

With her escape and the experience of freedom, Sethe had started to heal, she underscored this in a conversation with Paul D she once said, “I don’t have to tell you about Sweet Home – what it was – but maybe you don’t know what it was like for me to get away from there…I did it. I got us all out… We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too… it was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing of before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms, all my children could get in between.

In comparison to other slave owners, the Garners might have treated them humanely – as humanely as one treated a beloved pet. The animal treatment continued after Mr. Garner died, but his brother, school-teacher upped the anti.  Sethe and the other slaves on Sweet Home were subject to physical abuse, emotional degradation and Sethe the only female was brutally raped while school-teacher watched and took notes.  Why then would she, after experiencing freedom and self-determination, want her children to go back to slavery?  Sethe’s justification for her ultimate act of sacrifice is articulated while she explained the events to Paul D shortly after he was clued in to her act of violence.  “She was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono.  Simple.  She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the viel, out,  away, over there where no one could hurt them…where they would be safe”(192).  

Sethe’s experience of slavery is not unlike that of Jamaican National Hero Samuel Sharpe, who after organizing the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 was arrested, tried and sentenced to be hung.  The Christmas Rebellion was the last stand of Jamaican slaves and lead to the proclamation of freedom less than two years later.   Just before being lead to the gallows Sharpe famously said, “I’d rather die on yonder gallows, than live in slavery.”    The passion that both Sharpe and Sethe feels and strong, and emotion only felt every once in a lifetime – Sharpe, happy to go to the gallows, Sethe happy to end her children’s life than allowing their enslavement to continue.  

Unless you are Sethe, or Sharpe or someone who is stripped of self-determination and dignity, then you would recoil at the thought of a woman systematically cutting the throat of her children.   Indeed, witnesses white and black alike were dumbfounded by the act she had committed, and unless you were Sethe there’s no way of understanding.  School-teacher’s nephew couldn’t understand it – with legs shaking, he asks, “what she gone and do that for?  As sadistic as school-teacher was, it shook him to his core; “the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her and made her cut and run. Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think-just think-what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education (176).  It is clear then from school-teacher’s musings that Sethe’s status on Sweet Home farm was barely better than a beast of burden.  Sethe – a person; a human being with self-awareness and self-worth and newly found independence, and whose feelings are being compared to that of a horse.  Who would want that for themselves or for their children?

            Beloved, the novel is also about love, pure and simple.  It is also about maternal love, brotherly/sisterly love and self-love.  “Look like a loved them more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love them proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to [Sethe](191).”   Lynda Koolish solidifies this point.  “While maternal love is certainly a focus of the novel, the male protagonists in this novel also struggle towards a determination of appropriate loving within which they can survive.  In the absence of that stipulation, namely survivability, Halle loves too much and ends up with his face in the butter; Sethe’s companion and lover Paul D, haunted by the consequences of what he see as Halle’s and later Sethe’s ‘too thick love,” is determined to love small and suffers enormously for the consequences of his decision. (Koolish 170)

 

The novel Beloved is also about how memory of the past can be so burdensome, it holds us back like “the best Georgia hand-forged chains” keeping us from enjoying the now and looking forward to the future.  “Much of the novel explores the extraordinarily anguishing interlude of time during which virtually all the protagonist, not just Sethe, exist almost as dream walkers to expend their psychic resources keeping the past at bay (Koolish).  The specter of Beloved is her mother’s memory of her, her guilt, her shame for having killed her own child.  Beloved is also her unwillingness to let go of that memory of what Beloved might have become if she had been allowed to grow up.  Koolish points out, “That Beloved exists as the repository of unresolved feelings suggested by the fact that Stamp Paid confirms that initially Beloved is only seen by Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and himself each of whom has an enormous burden of guilt, shame, sadness, and fear.” (Koolish).  Beloved’s ghost being chased away by Paul D symbolizes a time when Sethe puts the specter of Beloved out of her mind, if only for a little time so that she can enjoy more pleasant memories with Paul D with whom she has a common past which does not include Beloved.  Her pre-occupation with Paul D distances her from Beloved, Denver is not happy with this situation, as Paul D has robbed the household of Sethe’s attention – when Sethe gives attention to Beloved, Denver benefits.  Koolish makes this point about healing and memory “For healing to take place, dissociation must give way to the full reclaiming of that wounded self, the reintegration of that denied self as part of the core of one’s being.  Each character in Beloved goes through a process by which he or she gains not only an awareness of that shadow, but an introspective awareness of the psychological origins of the split-off self.  The shattering and reclaiming of memory proceeds in similar ways for most of the central protagonists of the novel.  The memory of what has happened to them is pushed aside, externalized, repressed, planed in a box, given over to someone else, but where psychic disintegration has taken place, each character splits into a “core self” and “alters,” none of whom possess the others’ memories.”

 

As they get comfortable with each other at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved returns, embodied in a young girl, unable to stay away, needing to be fed by Sethe’s love.  She is as needy as a baby, thriving on the love of Sethe, and to a lesser extent, Denver’s love and when Paul D becomes wary of her, symbolically forces him to give himself, the only way he could “love” her. “Touch me on the inside” she pleads “call out my name,” she begs.  As she takes more love than anyone in this house has to give, she saps their spirit and Sethe sinks into a deep depression, Paul D becomes a drunkard, living in the church basement and Denver struggles to find herself, the find her independence,  to let go off the shackled of the past and to love herself.   Love takes a lot away from 124, but love also gives back.  Lead by Stamp Paid, the community bonds together to save the family at living 124.   Neighborly love – what more can one ask for.

“Mine is an unchanging love,
Higher than the heights above,
Deeper than the depths beneath,
Free and faithful, strong as death”

                                                (Cowper)

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Cowper, William. Hark My Soul, English Hymn 1731-1800)

Koolish, Lynda.  To be Loved and Cry Shame”: a Psychological reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. San Diego State University 2003.