Two little girls meet in a children’s shelter in the 1950s. They spend four months there with roommates and then meet randomly while growing up.
One girl is black, the other is white, but the reader of “Recitative”, Toni Morrison’s only short story, never knows who is who.
The story is a dazzling display of literary skill in which every word is finely honed to keep the reader guessing, and it’s also a test of the reader: Why is knowing a character’s race so deeply important to us? ?
Morrison, who died in 2019, wrote “Recitative” in 1980, in the years between her first novel, The bluest eyeand his masterpiece, Beloved (she wrote 11 novels in all), and before her 1993 Nobel Prize. The story appeared in anthologies, but now Knopf has published it as an elegant stand-alone book, and it could hardly be more timely.
The new edition of the story has an introduction by novelist and essayist Zadie Smith (White teeth, Advertisement). The intro is great and insightful and well worth reading, but it’s also a giant spoiler.
Please, please read the story first. It’s not that Smith answers the question of which girl is of which race – she doesn’t know either – but that her explanation is so thorough (it’s as long as the story) that reading it in first would to some extent prevent the emotional impact of the story. .
And the story has a lot of that, right from its opening lines: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s mother was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.
The narrator is 8-year-old Twyla, and her first response to Roberta is revulsion: “It was one thing to be rolled out of your own bed early in the morning – it was another to be stuck in a strange place. with a girl of a completely different race.
But they bond over what they have in common: fear and confusion, loneliness, bad grades and the discovery that “no one else wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with dead step parents. in the sky. We were dropped.
Eventually, each daughter returns to her mother. Morrison brings them together several times as an adult, with a mixture of tension and old-fashioned affection. In the late 1960s, Roberta stops by a restaurant where Twyla works and they have a chilling exchange. A few years later, they bump into each other at a high-end grocery store and discover that they live in nearby towns. “Suddenly,” Twyla said, “in a pulse, twenty years disappeared and everything came rushing back.”
The happy reunion, however, does not turn into a renewed friendship. Twyla and Roberta then see each other when the schools in their community fall apart and end up in opposing picket lines. The story ends with their chance encounter one Christmas Eve, when Roberta brings up a memory of St. Bonny that she has spoken of many times before.
It’s about a group of kids bullying a disabled school worker named Maggie. Twyla remembers it as an ugly thing the two witnessed, but Roberta’s version of the story changes. And, just to add another twist, one of them remembers Maggie being black, the other isn’t.
With every detail – the families they form, the neighborhoods they live in, the attitudes they express – Morrison keeps us off balance about each woman’s race. It’s a timely story in a country where race carries the weight of much of what we think we know about people who have different skin. If we couldn’t know another person’s race, how would we treat them, and how would they treat us?
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The story is also timely, as it comes amid another round of school book bans. (I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve seen in my lifetime.) Morrison’s books, especially The bluest eye and Belovedfrequently appear on lists of challenged books, often for “sexual content” (which is actually damning depictions of sexual violence) or racist language.
What both books are really about, of course, are the corrosive effects of racism. Sexual content might be what’s being flagged – though the idea of kids going to the library looking for sexual content when most of them have internet access is weirdly laughable.
Library shelves hold heaps of books with passages about straight white kids hooking up, but somehow the ones on the challenge lists for “sexual content” so often seem to be written by and about people of color, non-Christians, or LGBTQ people.
“Recitative” will be a particularly tough test for book banners: no gender, no offensive language, and no way to tell what race its characters are.
But Morrison is on their list, so they’ll be looking for something.
I will leave him the last word on the subject, excerpt from the essay “Peril” from his 2019 collection The source of self-esteem. Books are banned and writers attacked, she writes, “because the truth is a problem. It’s a problem for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unimprisoned, and unharassed writers are a problem for the ignorant bully, the sneaky racist, and the predators who prey on the resources of the world. … Therefore, the historic suppression of writers is the first harbinger of the gradual disappearance of the additional rights and freedoms that will follow.
Recitative: a story
By Toni Morrison, with an introduction by Zadie Smith
Alfred A. Knopf, 40 pages, $16