Recitatif is the French word for recitative, which is a type of spoken performance that's a combination of regular speech and singing, similar to the German term Sprechgesang. It's typically used in narrative interludes during operas, for instance.
“Recitatif” is Toni Morrison’s one and only published short story. First published in 1983 in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, it tells the story of Twyla and Roberta, two girls of different races who first meet in an orphanage and bond partly because they've been assigned to the same room and partly because the other kids consider them outsiders because their mothers are still alive. The story follows the two characters as they age and provides a microcosm of racial conflict in America and the roles that memory and perception play in that conflict.
of the many things I admire about the story was Morrison's ability
to omit (or obfuscate) the races of Twyla and Roberta while still offering the
reader plenty of rich details about the characters and the settings they move
through. It’s clearly the author’s intention to use this obfuscation to force
any reasonably intelligent reader to really think about his or her own notions
about race and stereotypes.
no easy feat, and stands in stark contrast with the descriptions in works by
other African-American authors (for instance, Thulani Davis’ novel 1959, wherein we absolutely know all the
characters’ races but get at best generic details about people’s clothes,
furniture, food, etc.) It’s not enough to simply omit a character’s skin color;
stereotyped racial traits are legion, and Morrison either avoids or deftly
employs them. She does a masterful job of assigning Twyla and Roberta traits,
backgrounds, accessories and interests that really could be interpreted as
either “white” or “black,” depending.
Twyla’s and Roberta’s absent mothers as a major example of the racial blurring
in the story. Twyla’s mother “danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” Later, we learn that Roberta’s mother is “Bigger than any man
and on her chest was the biggest cross I’d ever seen.” It’s a racial stereotype
to think of black women as promiscuous/irresponsible (usually via the cultural
image of the welfare mother with a brood of children via a dozen different men),
yet there are clearly plenty of promiscuous/irresponsible white women in the
world. But there’s an equally strong stereotype of the large, fervently
religious black woman. We know from the context of the story that one mother is
white and the other is black, but given the rest of their descriptions, it’s
impossible to choose a race for either with any certainty.
issue of handling race in my descriptions is one I wrestle with. As a white
writer raised in the South, I’m acutely aware that I may be laboring under
still-unexamined racist notions. I don’t want to portray my characters in a way
that perpetuates stereotypes.
I was writing my third novel, I tried an experiment. My secondary characters in
that book are a variety of races, and I deliberately avoided describing skin
color entirely, relying on other cues (clothes, family names, etc.) to convey
nationality or ethnicity. The copy editor actually wanted me to put skin color
descriptions into the narrative, but I successfully ignored that bit of
feedback. Ultimately, very few readers noticed one way or the other – it’s
possible that to some, the characters “read” as default Caucasian – but those
who did notice seemed a bit perturbed that they couldn’t tell if a particular
character was black or white.
still don’t know if my experiment was worthwhile or not. It did force me to
focus on other details, which I’m sure resulted in better descriptions. But
because I still worry I may be handing nonwhite characters poorly, I’m going to
keep “Recitatif” on hand as a master class in how to use descriptions in truly