The setting of Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” plays a significant role in communicating the author’s message.
The setting, both time and place, changes several times throughout the story, but it is always historically and racially significant.
We first meet Twyla and Roberta as young girls living in an orphanage in the 1950s. There was no shortage of racial tension in the United States during this time. The Jim Crow laws were in effect, and it was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. The seeds of the Civil Rights movement were being planted.
Morrison tells us that one of the girls is Black and the other is white, but she deliberately refrains from tells us who is which. She invites us to acknowledge and confront our prejudices and notions surrounding race and race relations by being intentionally ambiguous.
Morrison uses historically, racially significant settings to challenge us to contemplate which girl is Black and which is white. She wants us to see how both characters interact with these settings, which change throughout the story to reflect the shifts in thoughts, views, and behaviors connected with race.
The story opens at a time of segregation and racial tension and then shifts to the 1960s, a time when the civil rights movement was gaining power and attention. The setting then shifts to the 1980s to demonstrate Twyla and Roberta’s differing views about integrating schools.