On August 9, 2014, a white officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed a black unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Officer Wilson shot at Brown twelve times, missing only half the shots. Officer Wilson said he shot Brown in self-defense; according to Wilson, Brown reached inside the cop car to take his gun. Some witnesses, however, said that Brown never went near Wilson’s car, leading many to believe that the killing of Brown resulted from racial hate, not self-defense. The jury at Officer Wilson’s trail was composed of nine white American citizens and three black American citizens. The jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson, a controversial decision that led to over 170 protests across the country, in addition to protests in Canada and London that were held outside of U.S. Embassies. In spite of the protests officer Wilson still went unpunished. It is possible that Officer Wilson did feel threatened by Brown, but if the 18-year-old was unarmed, what was Wilson so scared of? Was Brown’s race enough for Wilson to assume Brown was a threat to his life?
Race is a blooming social issue today, with Officer Wilson being one of many police officers over the past two years that have been accused of committing a hate crime. Racial differences have been an issue in the United States since the arrival of European settlers in 1492, and these issues grew worse after the Civil war in 1865 when African American slaves were officially emancipated. American society began to see radical changes; in 1868 the fourteenth amendment was passed giving African Americans full citizenship and equal protection. Later, in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was passed allowing African American males to vote. These progressive political actions were, however, shadowed by rebellious groups of white Americans that resisted change, a popular example of these groups is the KKK, formally known as the Ku Klux Klan. Even though it may seem like the Civil Rights movement in America always took one step forward and two steps back, any advancement towards equality kept the candle of hope lit for African Americans. Jump forward to the 1960s in America and there is a call for equality unlike any other that had been seen in American history.
Toni Morrison’s first and only short story, “Recitatif,” explores race relations during the 1960s up to the 1980s in the United States by allowing the readers to partake in an interracial friendship between a white woman and a black woman that meet as children at an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York. Morrison uses setting, particularly the time in American history she uses, to set the mood and reflect what the American Society was like during the decades of the 1960s, 1970 and 1980s. Morrison also used characterization and plot to develop her two main characters, Twyla and Roberta; she uses the characters’ life experiences and personal beliefs to create their identities, instead of using race. Morrison attempts to strip her characters of race by assigning both characters various, mixed stereotypes. By doing this Morrison completely disregards telling her audience which of the two characters is white and which is black, leaving the readers in the dark about the race of the characters. Morrison published this short story in 1983, when race still played a vital role in the attitudes people had toward each other, making it difficult for her audience to read her short story without constantly wondering the race of the characters. Morrison uses race as the main theme of her short story to draw attention to the reader’s discriminatory attitudes, she does this because Morrison knows that it is difficult for readers to relate to a character without knowing the character’s race. Race is a social construct that should not be necessary, however society has made it necessary.
Morrison’s short story was not written for the readers to correctly guess her characters’ race, but to place more attention on the readers’ stereotypical mindsets and racist attitudes. In other words, Morrison aims to bring out the reader’s stereotypes with this story. Morrison did not leave her audience in the dark about Twyla and Roberta’s race for the readers to find “clues” and figure out the race of each character, but instead to challenge her audience to read without giving a race to the characters. The reader should create an identity for the characters based on their life experiences and internal thoughts, not on the basis of who is black and who is white. In the event that the reader finds it difficult, if not impossible, to read the short story without giving race to the character, they should take a step back and ask themselves, why is placing a racial label on these characters so important? If the case is that the reader finds it inevitable to see the stereotypes that Morrison uses as simple characteristics or life events that these characters go through, the reader should ask themselves why. This is the first step for many readers to see past race and color and relate to a character solely based on their feelings, experiences, and actions.
Morrison sets the story between the 1960s and 1980s to evoke the hostile, bitter mood that these decades brought throughout her story, and to portray the sentiments of most white Americans at the time towards people of different color, particularly African Americans, but also vice versa; Morrison allows her readers to see how African Americans felt about white Americans during those decades as well. From the 1960s, all the way up to the 1980s there were radical changes in American History socially, economically and culturally. The ‘60s brought protests, sit-ins, boycotts, in addition to the death of powerful speakers, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Black American citizens were fed up with being treated as second-class citizens, they demanded equality. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought about the prohibition of discrimination in government programs, including all public schools. White students were bused out to black neighborhoods to pick up the black students, which cause outrageous amounts of anger and anxiety to white parents. Black parents were constantly worried about the safety of their children; fear of them being mistreated by their fellow classmates, looked down upon by their teachers and being emotionally attacked by angry white parents protesting outside of schools made many black parents think twice about sending their children to integrated schools. In “Recitatif” Morrison touches on this very issue, during Twyla and Roberta’s third encounter outside of their children’s school after law integrated it:
I drove on, and then changed my mind. I circled the block, slowed down, and honked my horn. Roberta looked over and when she saw me she waved. I didn't wave back, but I didn't move either. She handed her sign to another woman and came over to where I was parked.
“What are you doing?”
“Picketing. What's it look like?”
“What do you mean, 'What for?' They want to take my kids and send them out of the neighborhood. They don't want to go.”
“So what if they go to another school? My boy's being bussed too, and I don't mind. Why should you?” (1183)
Here Morrison depicts the anger and stress that integrating schools brought on parents. The audience experiences the bitter discrimination that both white and black children felt, the hatred they saw on their way to school every day for years in the 1960s. The 70s and 80s were decades of adaptation to the successful movements of the 1960s, with integration being encouraged, but rarely reinforced. African Americans focused mainly on not losing the ground they had gained, more so than trying to make further advancements in their social standing. Morrison allows her readers to experience the race wars during these three decades by delving into the thoughts going through one of the main characters, Twyla’s, head from the first moment she met Roberta at the orphanage, “The minute I walked in and the Big Bozo introduced us, I got sick to my stomach. It was one thing to be taken out of your own bed early in the morning it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race.” (1174) These characters felt literally disgusted by each other’s presence, solely because of their race and they were only children in that scene. This is something that, for the time the story is set in, is not surprising.
Morrison purposefully does not state which character is white and which one is black, she just lets her audience know that one of the girls is white, and the other is black, “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.” (1174) Morrison, instead of directly blurting out each character’s race, mixes different stereotypes for whites and blacks and assigned them to each character. For example, when Twyla and Roberta meet for the second time in their lives, after the orphanage, Twyla is working as a waitress at a diner and Roberta was on her way to see Jimi Hendrix (1178). Perhaps Roberta is black, and she is a fan of the famous black musician of the time, Jimi Hendrix; however, Hendrix was also popular among white young adults because he transcended race through music. Was Twyla a black young woman that had to work at a diner and could not afford to go to the concert or white girl that did not even know who Jimi Hendrix was at the time? The circumstances that these characters found themselves in could be interpreted as stereotypes for either race. This technique left her audience ignorant to the race of the characters throughout the whole story and even in the end Morrison does not reveal the race of the characters. Many readers try to use all of the “clues”, or stereotypes, Morrison left to figure out the race of the characters, but even now the question of their race remains. Morrison has even been asked in different interviews what race Twyla and Roberta were, and even now she does not reveal the race she assigned them in her mind. Literary analysts over the years, after the publication of Morrison’s “Recitatif”, have focused on finding the race of the two main characters in the short story, although that is not what the story is about.
Morrison’s theme throughout this work is race. By avoiding telling her readers the race of her characters, she raises the question of why race is so important to society. The fact is race is not important. Morrison allows her readers to notice this when she gives both characters thoughts, feelings, experiences and overall opinions without having to assign them a race. Morrison probes the idea that color has divided the human race into racial pools, Africans, Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics, and so on. This division makes it seem like other cultures and ethnicities are so different it is nearly impossible to relate to them, and for some it is difficult to even see people of other colors as humans. Morrison illustrates this during the third encounter Twyla and Roberta have:
Roberta turned around and looked at the women. Almost all of them were standing still now, waiting. Some were even edging toward us. Roberta looked at me out of some refrigerator behind her eyes.
"No, they're not. They're just mothers."
"And what am I? Swiss cheese?" (1184)
The audience perceives the tensions, the division that is created by race in “Recitatif”, and by not knowing which race is discriminating and which is being discriminated all the readers feel personally victimized. The audience can relate more to the experience of isolation that Twyla feels because they cannot side with the characters based on their race, but more so on their personalities and experiences.
“Recitatif” is a timeless short story that explores race relations, predominantly between blacks and whites, during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in the United States. Morrison questions the readers’ attitudes and beliefs about race, and she explores the delicate subject of racism by challenging her audience to read and relate to characters without knowing their race. I was sitting there with two great friends drinking Hawaiian Punch, a blast from the past, and talking about our inexistent love lives.