The Power of Our Unconscious
For a substantial amount of people, relationships that carry onward from childhood into adulthood tend to become the complete opposite of what they had remembered, as in the case of Twyla and Roberta in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”. Twyla unfurls the story as its sole narrator, recounting the prolonged relationship between her and Roberta, as well as the conflict and struggle they both encounter when meeting each other again in adulthood. Although Twyla and Roberta share many similarities in their youth, their sporadic meetings in adulthood reveal their insecurities and shortcomings. In turn, these particular disclosures by the somewhat unreliable narrator, Twyla, interrogate the reader’s unconscious self-regulating stereotypes regarding the “whiteness” and “blackness” of characters such as Twyla and Roberta, respectively. In Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” Morrison purposely distorts identifying key characteristics that one uses to racialize characters, such as speech, appearance, and even historical events in order to challenge the reader’s ideology that manifests during their unconscious and stereotypical racialization of characters who possess racial ambiguity.
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There is an underlying desire– a compulsion for the readers of “Recitatif” to decipher the racial question of Twyla and Roberta that pervades throughout the short story. Readers automatically begin to categorize and classify the characters whether they are conscious of it or not. Morrison has purposefully failed to express the detail of race in her story, and thus, the reader is coerced into unconsciously assigning racial stereotypes to Twyla and Roberta, even though these details are purposefully left ambiguous. In the beginning of the story, Twyla reminisces about her and Roberta’s first encounter at St. Bonny’s orphanage. Twyla reveals that she feels “Sick to [her] stomach” (Mays 239) towards the idea and concept of sharing a room with Roberta, who was, as she puts it, “a girl from a whole other race” (Mays 239). Immediately, just from this line, the reader is coerced into the act of racialization and assumption that Twyla is any other race besides African-American (in this case, white) and that Roberta is an African-American, or possibly another minority. Morrison purposefully has Twyla disclose the combination of details that she was “Sick to [her] stomach,” a phrase that has a negative connotation, directly with Roberta’s race, all while still being racially ambiguous and never using terminology such as “white” or “black” to describe Twyla and Roberta or their interactions with one another. Instead, Morrison is dependent on the reader’s unconscious racialization and inherent self-regulating stereotypes to assign races to Twyla and Roberta. This racialization and assumption is further evidenced when Twyla recalls that “Even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us. All kinds of kids were in there, black ones, white ones, even two Koreans,” (Mays 239) as Morrison adds impetus for the reader’s racialization and categorization of Twyla and Roberta’s race through Twyla’s speech and narration regarding the race of other children at the orphanage. As such, Morrison leaves readers with a sense of acknowledgment to why their unconscious is automatically assigning the identification of race for Twyla and Roberta through stereotypes, even though Twyla never discloses (or mentions) what race she or Roberta are.
“Recitatif” perpetuates a continuity of racial ambiguity to question the reader’s position in society. Morrison’s purposeful failure in explicitly disclosing who is white and who is black leads to readers unconsciously taking the initiative of attempting to identify the race of Twyla and Roberta. In this case, Morrison is relying on the reader’s unique personal experiences, as well as their own distinctive perceptions regarding what they believe a “white” or “black” person possesses, respectively. “Recitatif” confronts and challenges the reader for even using racial stereotypes that have been ingrained into them, as well as their dependency on them through Twyla and Roberta’s powerful mirrored exchange during the picketing for bussing, “I wonder what made me think you were different” (Mays 238). In this case, Morrison has both Twyla, Roberta and even the reader come to the realization that the segregation between whiteness and blackness of an individual is only reflected in the color of someone’s skin and nothing more. However, Morrison’s failure to disclose Twyla and Roberta’s race allows for the reader to peruse the text in “Recitatif,” while also unconsciously hunting for clues that could segregate either Twyla or Roberta from the racial categories of white or black respectively, thus constantly reinforcing and self-regulating the perpetuate racialization of characters and people in society. These varying interpretations of Twyla and Roberta’s race occur due to the distinction of what the reader concludes to be “white” or “black.” Each and every person owns an internal set of thoughts, features, and stereotypes that define what they think it means to be white, black, or any other race of an individual, even if they explicitly possess racial ambiguity.
Morrison even uses this technique of racial ambiguity through her own characters unconscious racialization, specifically Twyla’s recollection of Maggie, St. Bonny’s “Kitchen woman” (Mays 240). Twyla distinctly states that Maggie is “Old and sandy-colored,” (Mays 240) being careful not to say white or black, but an entirely different shade of color, or even a mix of the two depending on the reader’s interpretation. The physical appearance of Maggie is revisited again when Twyla and Roberta are adults fighting at the bussing protest– Roberta states that Twyla “Kicked a poor old black lady,” (Mays 249) while Twyla denies that Maggie was ever black, “What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black” (Mays 249). Morrison is again, purposefully distorting the key identifiers and physical appearance of characters in order to challenge the ideology of not only the reader, but also the characters in “Recitatif” as both the reader, Twyla, and Roberta are all unconsciously racializing characters who have been purposefully left racially ambiguous.
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Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” purposefully fails to disclose the race of characters in order to challenge the reader’s ideology that manifests during their unconscious and stereotypical racialization of characters who possess racial ambiguity. By doing so, Morrison exposes and reveals the reader’s dependency and reliance on stereotypes and racialization as an aid to interpreting and analyzing text, as well as prompting the reader to acknowledge and recognize their reliance to their own personal and unique perceptions regarding race and society.
- Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
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