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.”