Study Guide

Recitatif

by Toni Morrison

Recitatif Themes

Themes

Race and Racism
The issue of race and racism is central to the story. Twyla’s first response to rooming with Roberta at St. Bonny’s is to feel sick to her 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.’’ Throughout the story Twyla and Roberta’s friendship is inhibited by this sense of an uncrossable racial divide, played out against the background of national racial tensions such as the busing crisis. Racial conflicts provide the main turning points in the story’s plot. At no point, however, does Morrison disclose which girl is black and which is white. She offers socially and historically specific descriptions in order to flesh out her characterizations of Twyla and Roberta, and some of these descriptions may lead readers to come to conclusions about the characters’ races based on associations, but none is definitive. For example, when Roberta shows up at the Howard Johnson’s where Twyla works, on her way to see Jimi Hendrix, she’s described as having ‘‘hair so big and wild I could hardly see her face.’’ This may suggest that Roberta is black and wore an afro, a style for black hair popular in the 1960s. During this same period, however, hair and clothing styles (and music such as that of black rocker Hendrix) crossed over between black and white youths, and many whites wore their hair big and wild. Likewise, Roberta’s socioeconomic progress from an illiterate foster care child to a rich executive’s wife may suggest that she is white because of the greater economic power of whites in general. In Twyla’s words, ‘‘Everything is so easy for them.’’ Although economic class can be associated with race, there are plenty of white firemen and black executives....

(The entire section is 749 words.)