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  • The Space that Race Creates:An Interstitial Analysis of Toni Morrison's "Recitatif"
  • Shanna Greene Benjamin (bio)

Nostalgia. History. Punctuation? Yes. Punctuation—ubiquitous, understudied, unconscious, undone, present, presentational, peripatetic, imported, important.

—Jennifer DeVere Brody1

In texts where racial categories are elusive or ambiguous, the space between the binary becomes open terrain for unpacking race as a trope in American literature. "Recitatif," Toni Morrison's first and only short story, is one such text. "Recitatif," so named for a recitative style of vocal performance that advances the action of, say, an opera in much the same way that dialogue advances the action of a play,2 Morrison charts the adult lives of Twyla Benson and Roberta Fisk—two women brought together as eight-year-old girls at the St. Bonaventure orphanage—and dramatizes their periodic and serendipitous interactions during some twenty years after they first meet. By selectively identifying one woman as white and the other as black, Morrison paints race as a salient feature of the narrative. By resisting the impulse to reveal which woman identifies with which race, however, Morrison challenges the ways writers rely on stereotypical racial codes to describe their characters, compelling readers to interrogate their own suppositions about racial signifiers.3

Race has been, and quite possibly always will be, as central to American literature as narratives of contact and conquest, self-reliance and self-fashioning, modernism and multiculturalism. The conflict that was at one time among the Spanish, French, and Native [End Page 87] Americans was quickly supplanted by tensions between white colonists and black Africans. As inadequate as the "black-white nexus" is to capturing the complexities of America's multiracial past,4 the United States government has traditionally drawn lines of full citizenship along this binary, regulating educational access, marriage rights, and political enfranchisement based upon skin color.5 What resulted was the practice of categorizing persons according to race. The racial signs and symbols permeating much of early American writing morphed, later, into tropes of blackness where dark skin (or simply a dark presence) represents the racial anxieties of white America. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison probes how a dark or "Africanist" presence "ignite[s] critical moments of discovery or change in literature" written by those who are not black.6 If, as Morrison suggests, the presence of a black body signals a moment of psychological or spiritual awakening for nonblack characters in texts crafted by nonblack writers, what sort of awakening takes place when Morrison maintains racial codes but refuses to identify to whom blackness is ascribed?

"Recitatif" helps to answer this query. First published in Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones) co-edited anthology Confirmation, and subsequently reprinted in Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write about Race, "Recitatif" stands as Morrison's sole foray into the short story and boldly takes aim at the ways in which writers rely on stereotypical racial codes to describe their characters.7 The tale charts the adult lives of protagonists Twyla Benson and Roberta Fisk as they argue about their memories of the past and debate shifting politics in the present; they reckon with how race has influenced their perspectives and prompt readers to consider the same. Race, to be sure, is central to the story—but not in the way readers might expect. Morrison states, from the outset, that one woman is black and the other is white, but she never reveals which is which.

The impulse to "solve" the racial conundrum permeating "Recitatif" reveals an underlying theme central to Morrison's short story. Readers want to be able to categorize characters one way or another, to "know" race, and they will go to great lengths to assign racial categories if the writer fails to do it for them. When readers focus on the opposing ends of the racial spectrum, the either / or, the black-and-white of the story, they lose a crucial layer of meaning imbedded within liminal figures and interstitial narratives that defy classification along oppositional discursive paradigms. In "Recitatif," the interstitial narrative between Twyla and Roberta is the story of Maggie: the "kitchen woman"8 who functions as an imperfect...


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pp. 87-106
Launched on MUSE
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