What is the message of Toni Marrison's poem "Recitatif"?
The title of Toni Morrison's short story, Recitatif," means, among other things, "a recital" of some sort, and the protagonist, Twyla, provides us with a "recital" of her connect with Roberta, also placed in the shelter where Twyla once lived.
Morrison’s parents taught her much about understanding racism and growing up in predominantly white America.
Her father was pessimistic about whites and blacks learning to tolerate each other, but Toni's mother was much more optimistic. It is no surprise, then, that Morrison's themes would address these issues.
The theme of prejudice runs through the story, which Twyla introduces early on when she tells "Old Bozo" that her mother won't like her being placed in a room with a white girl, but Twyla doesn't seem to completely understand this. Roberta's ability to listen and seemingly understand her quickly, pleases Twyla, and they become unlikely friends.
Thy recall the abuse of mute Maggie—one of the workers at the shelter—suffering at the hands of the older girls who torment her as she tries to ignore them; but the abuse of Maggie foreshadows Twyla's dormant sense of "fair play" between whites and blacks.
The first clear indication of bigotry comes at the hands of Roberta's mother when the mothers of girls visit. When Robert tries to introduce Twyla and her mother to Roberta's mother, the other mother's slight is obvious—even though Twyla's mother is a little slow to pick up on the racial slight:
….[I] turned, and saw Roberta smiling. I smiled back... Then Roberta said, "Mother, I want you to meet my roommate, Twyla. And that's Twyla's mother."
...She was big…and [she wore] the biggest cross I'd ever seen...And in the crook of her arm was the biggest Bible ever made.
Mary...tried...to shake hands, I guess. Roberta's mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too. She didn't say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her Bible-free hand and stepped tout of line, walking quickly to the rear of it. Mary was...not too swift when it comes to what's really going on. Then this light bulb goes off...and she says "That bitch!" really loud...
(We cannot miss the irony of this seemingly Christian woman—Roberta's mother—slighting Twyla and her mother: not exactly a "Christ-like" response.)
When the children leave the home, they meet a few more times. The first time, Roberta is going through a hippie-phase, on her way to see Jimi Hendrix—Twyla waitressing tables when Roberta arrives. This shows the first divide between them: a social one.
Next they meet as adults and they seem to enjoy reconnecting. The third time they meet again, it is across picket lines where white women fight bussing that will integrate schools, and both are on opposite sides. There is still a connection, but paradoxically, they are "enemies." The divide here is a racial one.
The last time they meet, Roberta is a little drunk and speaks honestly with her old friend. Robert's preoccupation is about whatever happened to Maggie?
This may symbolize Roberta sense of personal failure for not standing up for the woman—and that she really wanted to hurt he—this may parallel her struggle with Twyla. The story may thematically parallel the struggles between whites a blacks of the time. However, perhaps it also demonstrates that some connections can be made regardless of color, and that once in place, those threads cannot easily be severed. In this we may see Morrison's mother's optimistic view of peace between the races.