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In Recitatif, by Toni Morrison, the racial identity of Roberta and Twyla is an ambiguous part of the story. From the outset, it is apparent that Roberta and Twyla are of different races. They were both stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race. Throughout the story, each character is developed more and more, though it does not necessarily lead to a conclusion as to what race each girl is. Many of the traits could be indicative of either a black or white girl. More so, it confuses the issue even more by leading the reader to decide one way and change his/her mind a minute later. However, in the scheme of this story, I think that is just the point.
In the beginning, my first initial reactions were that Roberta was the black girl, while Twyla was the white girl. During the time period in the beginning of the story, a negative attitude was taken toward black people. It seems as though Twyla s mom had warned her about the black people who never wash their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny. However, this is not enough evidence to decide one way or the other. Twyla also tells the Big Bozo, My mother won t like you putting me here. A white mother did not want her white daughter to be roomed with a black girl. Furthermore, Roberta does not seem to understand this. Roberta must have thought [Twyla means] that [her] mother would be mad about [her] being put in a shelter. Not about rooming with her, because as soon as Bozo [leaves] she [comes] over to [her] and [says,] Is your mother sick too? In my interpretation of how things were in those times, a white person may be offended to be paired with a black person, while the black person may not care. In this case, Twyla shows concern for being put into the same room as Roberta, while Roberta does not seem to notice any animosity.
Another hint of each girls race is the depiction of each of their mothers. Twyla s mom, Mary, wore tight green slacks and a ratty fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. Roberta s mom was quite different. She was big. Bigger than any man and on her chest was the biggest cross [that Twyla had] ever seen and in the crook of her arm was the biggest Bible ever made. Twyla s mom did not bring any food for the lunch so they had to eat the candy that Tywla had in her basket. Roberta s mom brought chicken legs and ham sandwiches and oranges and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta drank milk from a thermos while her mother read the Bible to her. This does not necessarily describe any of the girls races, however, with the stereotype of each race at the time, Twyla would seem to be the poor, black girl, while Roberta was the comfortable white girl. However, this is contradictory to the previous conclusion of their races. This is furthermore supported by the disgust that Roberta s mom seemed to show toward Twyla s mom when she tried to shake her hand. Twyla s mom also reacted by ranting and calling names. Once again, based on a stereotype, black women are very outspoken and when they are offended, they make sure everyone knows it. Twyla s mom would have kept it up, if [Twyla] hadn t squeezed her hand as hard as [she] could. This brings up an interesting point. Twyla seems to carry the role of the responsible mother while her own mother exhibits childish behavior. When she first saw Twyla, [Tywla s mom] smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother not me, her daughter. Also, simple-minded Mary was not too swift when it comes to what s really going on. It s as though Mary was the na ve child being watched over by her mother. After the little rant, Mary even acts like a child, still [twitching] and [crossing and uncrossing] her legs all through the service. Even [groaning] a few times.
Following this incident in the story, Twyla encounters Roberta in Howard Johnson s. Roberta [is] sitting with two guys smothered in head and facial hair. Her own hair [is] so big and wild [that Twyla] could hardly see her face. This implies to me a sort of Afro hairstyle for both Roberta and her escorts. Even her clothing and jewelry seen to suggest that she is black. She [has] on a powder-blue halter and shorts outfit and earrings the size of bracelets, similar to the earrings worn by African women. She is also on her way to see Jimi Hendrix, a black musician, and snubs Twyla for not knowing who he is. Though this is not entirely indicative of a black person, it is more likely to be a black person. This once again contradicts the previous conclusion of Roberta s race. The line between who is black and who is white gets very hard to distinguish.
On their next encounter, Twyla and Roberta are both married. Twyla s husband, James Benson, has a big loud family. From my meager history, I seem to associate Benson as a black name based on the show The Bensons, an 80s sitcom about a black family. Generally, black families are big and loud, however, this is again based on a stereotype that is portrayed in movies, television, and media. Twyla s husband s family feels like this welfare area of Newburgh is some upstate paradise of a time long past. Again, the poverty implies a black background, especially with James working as a fireman, not one of the most upscale jobs at the time. In Roberta s case, she [dresses] to kill. Diamonds on her hand, a smart white summer dress. The seemingly-more intelligent and prosperous Roberta is married to a man who lives in a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Once again, the analogy of smart to ignorant, and rich to poor is applied to imply that Roberta is white and Twyla is black. Furthermore, Tywla has the thoughts in her head that everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world. This is definitely showing of a black idea toward a white person.
However, this is where the distinction between them gets even less apparent. They both seem to be on the same level when they start to reminisce about their days in the orphan shelter. They both had embarrassing mothers, one of which who wore a cross like two telephone poles and the other with tight slacks. Both were small-town country girls.
As they speak though, the line begins to appear once again. Roberta has two servants and a Chinaman as her chauffeur. When Roberta brings up what she thought happened to Maggie back then, she blames Twyla for [blocking] it out of her mind. It s as if Twyla is trying to block a bad memory of a black woman, similar to her, having a traumatic experience. When Twyla mentions how harshly Roberta treated her at Howard Johnson s, Roberta responds by saying, Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black white. You know how everything was. Roberta was trying to say that whites were supposed to treat blacks that way or blacks were supposed to treat whites that way. This leaves it a bit ambiguous until Twyla thinks that blacks were friendly with whites in those days to contradict Roberta s statement. This could only mean that Roberta was a black woman being mean to a white woman, in order to contradict Roberta s statement.
During the next passage, Twyla s son, Joseph, is on the list of kids to be transferred from the junior high school to another one at some far-out-of-the-way place. This implies the segregation of schools by sending the blacks to go farther away so the whites could have the closer school to themselves. However, this idea of Twyla being black based on this detail is disproved when we find out that Roberta s are being bussed too. The whites set up this bussing procedure. When Twyla and Roberta discuss the bussing, Roberta says, It s a free country. Twyla comes back by saying, Not yet, but it will be. Obviously offended, Roberta retorts with, What the hell does that mean? I m not doing anything to you. This implies that Twyla was blaming Roberta for this bussing, meaning that Roberta is a white woman. Twyla continues by referring to Roberta s fellow picketers as they. Look at them. Just look. Who do they think they are? Swarming all over the place like they own it. And now they think they can decide where my child goes to school. Look at them, Roberta. They re Bozos. As I understood it, the Big Bozo was a white woman. This implies that the picketers are whites as they are the ones causing the racial strife. However, Roberta responds by defending them, as one would defend your own kind. The animosity goes to another level and Roberta even accuses Twyla of kicking Maggie. She says, You re the little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot. She is accusing Twyla of being a bigot, an intolerant white person. Twyla does not even remember Maggie as being black. Later, she even worries that Maggie [is her] dancing mother. This could just be an unconscious relationship she made with her black mother and the black woman, Maggie. However, even the race of Maggie is not certain. What is later shown is that neither Twyla or Roberta kicked Maggie, but both of them wanted to do it. They wanted to hurt her.
This brings up another important issue in the story. Society has given blacks a negative marking, a negative brand. Psychologically, even black people begin to find the black race as repulsive and digusting. Regardless of which girl was black, this could have led them both to have the yearning to hurt Maggie. This leads to my primary point. Genetics and appearance do not make people different from one another. The difference between a black person and a white person is so hard to distinguish without visual features that maybe there is actually no difference between them except for the visual features. Even these features are sometimes absent in a mixed race person who is still considered black (non-white) due to genetics, but white due to appearance. In many of the situations where I drew conclusions on the race of either girl, I know I could have given an argument otherwise to switch an opposite conclusion.
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