In what way is the historical setting important to Morrison’s “Recitatif”?

In Toni Morrison's “Recitatif,” the historical setting is important because it provides the context of racial tension and strife that becomes one of the story's major themes.

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Toni Morrison's story “Recitatif” takes place over a period of nearly three decades, yet the story's historical setting highlights the difficulties in race relations throughout the era. The story begins in an orphanage where Twyla and Roberta are both left by their mothers. One girl is black, and the other is white, and we can estimate the time period as being the 1950s, when racial integration was a critical issue. The girls' mothers have both taught them to be prejudiced against other races, but the two become friends anyway.

The story then jumps eight years ahead, and Twyla is working at a Howard Johnson's lunch counter when Roberta enters with some friends. We know that this is some time in the 1960s because of the mention of Jimi Hendrix. Roberta is cool toward Twyla, hardly speaking to her and not even saying goodbye when she leaves. The suggestion is that the racial tension of the era is causing difficulties between the two young women.

The story then moves ahead another twelve years, probably some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Racial “strife” is rampant in Twyla's town as the local schools are working to integrate students of different races through busing. Twyla and Roberta end up on different sides of the issue, and they both participate in heated protests, Roberta being firmly against busing and Twyla being for it. This historical issue greatly intensifies the tension between the two women.

Years later, Twyla and Roberta meet again. Twyla's son Joseph is now a college student, so probably another seven or eight years have passed (since Joseph is in junior high in the previous episode). The two women reconnect, and the tension between them fades, although Roberta's long-term issues that reach all the way back to the orphanage are still evident.

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