Toni Morrison’s Many-Colored Lamb
A Feature Review Essay on
Recitatif: A Story
Hardback: Knopf, 2022
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Review Essay by Joshua Hren
Toni Morrison described her sole short story “Recitatif” as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” The dominant critical uptake has turned this republished masterpiece into a test wherein each reader’s racial prejudices are revealed by drawn conclusions concerning the characters’ color lines.
So completely does Morrison resist ready-made categorizations of race that Zadie Smith comes to call this experiment “a puzzle of a story, then—a game.” In her superbly circumspect introduction, Smith concedes that this “philosophical brainteaser” provokes us to “put back in precisely what Morrison deliberately removed,” but this is in part to “[remind] me that it is not essentially black or white to be poor, oppressed, lesser than, exploited, ignored.”
In searching for significance past the question of who is white and who is black, then, I am not whitewashing the consequentiality of racial prejudice from reality at large, but conceding to the author’s own conceit within the confines of this story. But in this story, by design, that question cannot be definitively answered. Why? Morrison invites us to read more out of her story. Smith rightly resists those who would dismiss all pained wrestlings with shared history as “resentment politics,” says Smith. But if we revisit “Recitatif,” we do so “not for the shallow motive of transhistorical blame, much less to induce personal comfort or discomfort, but rather in the service of the truth.”
True, “Recitatif” immediately casts coloration as central to the fraught friendship of Twyla and Roberta, two eight year old roommates at Saint Bonaventure’s shelter in upstate New York. “It was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race,” admits Twyla. The two bond over not being “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky,” (Roberta’s mother is terminally ill and Twyla’s “just likes to dance all night”), and from their set-apart status they elect an affinity. “Salt and pepper.” That’s what the other kids call them.
Morrison, who was conscious that her own “vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it,” saw her task as maneuvering “ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.” If these girls discover that they are “more alike than unalike,” this is not an afterschool special about racism but a work of art that is dizzyingly deft at sustaining a tension between separation and unification.
In a manner that exercises our acedia-slackened attention, the story calls every ready category into question, symbolically present in numbers, names, and language. The eight year old girls stayed four months at St. Bonaventure’s. Their time spent there amounts to half their ages, as if to accent the fissure that forever divides them, except that the same number parallels their future efforts to work out that early bond. Four times they meet after leaving St. Bonaventure’s, two times marked by cruelty and animosity and two times thrilling with the prospect of friendship.
The name of the shelter—St. Bonaventure, is filled with multifarious fare: named after a Franciscan who resisted Francis’ anti-intellectual proclivities and paralleled the fleshed-out stigmatic experience of his founder with the cranial (and wonderful) Journey of the Mind to God, the place also literally means “good fortune,” the irony of which requires no comment. “[Nobody] ever said Saint Bonaventure,” Twyla tells us; everyone feminized the masculine name to “Saint Bonny’s”. Roberta is a feminized masculine name. Twyla sounds like “twilight”—that liminal time between light and dark. The very name of Mrs. Itkin, the director of the shelter, implies a reductive, dehumanizing kinship, and her nickname “Big Bozo” lends her a clownish masculinity. Twyla and Roberta call the mean teenagers “gar girls,” Roberta’s misheard word for the evil stone faces described in civics class.” Twyla calls her mother not mom but “Mary,” which connotes Christ’s mother Mary, though Twyla turns any such affiliation topsy-turvy, “A pretty mother on earth is better than a beautiful dead one in the sky even if she did leave you all alone to go dancing,” she contends when, on a Sunday, the underdressed Mary comes and clings to her daughter, delivering yet another reversal, “like she was the little girl looking for her mother—not me.”
Lastly, let’s not forget the title itself, “Recitatif.” Although the story contains not a whiff of French culture, Morrison selected the French spelling for recitative, a mode of musical declamation that, like its twin twilight, tightrope walks between the either/or—in this case, between ordinary speech and operatic song. Submerged between these manifold doublings and divisions, counterpoints and enigmas, we experience Smith’s sense that here is “A puzzle of a story, then—a game.”
But Morrison has given us more than a game. Deep in the aortic valve of the story, pulsating silently but undyingly, “Recitatif” hides a primordial sin. In the same retrospective paragraph that begins with the benign “It wasn’t really bad, St. Bonny’s,” we discover that Twyla has scrubbed more than color from her remembrance. “Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean,” an assertion undermined by her account of the “gar girls” who ruled the shelter’s orchard while “Maggie fell down there once. The kitchen woman with legs like parentheses.” Maggie can’t talk. “The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute.” Her disfigurement is a magnet for their own meanness. “Dumby! Dumby!” the friends cry, testing the credibility of her deafness. “Bow legs! Bow legs!” Maggie appears to be oblivious. Except that many years later “it shames [Twyla] even now to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and couldn’t tell on us.”
Both girls revisit Maggie’s fall three other times throughout the story. The first retelling comes when they collide in an upscale grocery store. While Twyla’s impulsively-purchased Klondike bars (brown chocolate coating, white ice cream) melt, she admits that “I don’t remember a hell of a lot from those days, but Lord, St. Bonny’s is as clear as daylight. Remember Maggie? The day she fell down and those gar girls laughed at her?” Roberta stares back, startled at this conjunction of surefire clarity and error. Maggie didn’t fall. “No, Twyla. They knocked her down. Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes. In the orchard.” The detailed violence vexes Twyla, who worries she may have forcibly forgotten the truth.
The next time the two meet they pace madly on opposite sides of a street, voicing their views during a school-bussing protest. “My sign didn’t make sense without Roberta’s,” says Twyla; the sworn enemies mimic one another in perfectly symbiotic reliance. When protestors try to tip Twyla’s car she reaches out for her old friend’s grasp, “like the old days in the orchard when they saw us watching them and we had to get out of there, and if one of us fell the other pulled her up,” but she finds no receiving hand. Rather, Roberta extends a smug condemnation, adding new dimensions to Maggie’s fall: “. . . when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot.” Days later Twyla still reels over this revision, shocked at the prospect of the kitchen lady’s blackness, certain that Roberta’s allegation is erroneous. And then she concludes her ruminations with a skeleton key note: “but I sure did want to” kick Maggie,
“We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help. Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody who could tell you anything important that you could use. Rocking, dancing, swaying as she walked. And when the gar girls pushed her down, and started roughhousing, I knew she wouldn’t scream, couldn’t—just like me and I was glad about that.”
Their final tête-à-tête comes on Christmas eve in the kind of blasé diner where they’d crossed paths years before when Roberta—possibly on drugs, on her way to meet Jimi Hendrix— theatrically denied any kinship with Twyla, who was working as a waitress in the dive restaurant. Now, looking a bit drunk, Roberta “slipped into the booth beside me”—not spaced or across from her, as in prior cases, but as close as she can get, signaling a transcendence of past divisions and a tangible ache for communion. The last time they met—abreast in the protest—Roberta “really did think [Maggie] was black.” She did not intentionally manufacture that aspect. But now she questions it, citing a truer cause for her meanness,
“She’d been brought up in an institution like my mother was and like I
thought I would be too. And you were right. We didn’t kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her. I said we did it, too. You and me, but that’s not true. And I don’t want you to carry that around. It was just that I wanted to do it so bad that day—watching them doing it.”
The friends’ confessions are clear dovetails, epiphanies that arrive in tandem near the story’s end. Here is the remarkable thing: although Twyla never reveals her interior conviction that “I sure did want to” do violence to Maggie, her friend not only comes to the same self-condemnation, but in trying to absolve her former roommate she unwittingly introduces a new sin: if “wanting to is doing it,” then both of them are summoned to a height of spiritual sublimity that can only be called Christian, echoing as it does the exacting—and exalting—Epistle of 1 John: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Like the reader, Twyla and Roberta had tried to resolve their shared history by assigning a definitive race to Maggie. But the scapegoating hatred that led to Maggie’s fall is more convincingly assigned to two primary causes: the teenagers knowledge that Maggie is one to whom (to cite Smith) “anything might be done”—this reverberated preying on radical helplessness by “Poor little [gar] girls who fought their uncles off . . . ” And then, if Roberta and Twyla did not author her injuries, and even if we sympathize with their abandonment, they confess their collusion, their warped revulsion against Maggie—against mother.
“What the hell happened to Maggie?” Roberta, really crying, concludes the story with a question. When, earlier, Twyla revisited the hell that harrowed the kitchen woman, she remembered recurring dreams of the apple orchard: “Empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny’s but fat with flowers when I left.” The Edenic allusion to the “bow-legged” Maggie (“The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8-9)) is evident. More than a clever puzzle of ambiguities, “Recitatif” is a feat of mystery: the Fall of Adam and Eve is in that orchard, which already flowers with Cain’s murderous heart. Though she came to call herself a “disaffected Catholic,” Morrison’s roots reach back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of whose bruised apples we all have partaken. Her fiction flashes forward to the “transcending love” that, she has said, makes “the New Testament . . . so pertinent to black literature—the lamb, the victim, the vulnerable one who does die but nevertheless lives.” As René Girard reveals, though our age may profess a secular creed, centuries of devotion to Christ’s sacrifice have attuned all souls to the sufferings of the least and the last among us, especially the many-colored scapegoats like Maggie, who matters because of the Son who was slain.
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes essays and poems in such journals as First Things and America, National Review and Commonweal, among others. Joshua’s books include: the novel Infinite Regress; the short story collections This Our Exile and In the Wine Press; the book of poems Last Things, First Things, & Other Lost Causes. You can visit his vanity of vanities here: www.joshuahren.com
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