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The Exclusivity of Racial Categories: An Analysis of the Racial Ambiguity in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”
By way of its maintenance of racial ambiguity, “Recitatif” challenges the role of the reader. By not explicitly stating which character is black and which character is white, readers try to figure out where Twyla and Roberta match inside the two categories. Readers rely on their personal perceptions of what it signifies to be ‘black’ and what it implies to be ‘white.’ Stanley argues that “[w]omen and folks of colour have long struggled against a dominant culture that locations them in subordinate positions, defined by being outside of white, masculinist forms” (73). “Recitatif” confronts readers with their reliance on this sort of representation. Without having getting told the race of the characters, readers analyze the text, searching for clues that may place a single of the girls in this position “outside of white,” reinforcing that oppressive way of thinking. Elizabeth Abel writes that, as a white lady, she pictures Twyla as white whilst a “black female feminist critic, Lula Fragd… [is] specific that Twyla [is] black” (471). The difference in these interpretations stems from the distinction in every woman’s readership. Although Abel focuses on “racial iconography,” she notes that Fragd emphasizes “cultural practices far more historically nuanced” (474). In this case, each and every reader has her personal set of traits that signify ‘blackness’ and a set of qualities that signify ‘whiteness’ to each Fragd and Abel. To Fragd, Roberta fits into the ‘white’ category to Abel, Roberta fits into the ‘black’ category, according to the signifiers. These signifiers work to help readers racialize either girl primarily based on their position “outside of white.” I argue that these signifiers are the stereotypes that “Recitatif” challenges.
Abel pictures Roberta as getting different from herself, specially throughout the Howard Johnson scene. In this sense, Abel is ‘othering’ Roberta and placing her in that position “outside of white.” Roberta is described as getting hair “so large and wild” it covers her face, and “earrings the size of bracelets” (six). Abel concludes that in this moment “Twyla’s sense of inadequacy vis-?-vis Roberta, like her representation of her mother’s inferiority to Roberta’s, signal[s] Twyla’s whiteness to [her] by articulating a white woman’s fantasy… about black women’s potency” (474). This is a single reading of Roberta and I argue, is representative of the readership “Recitatif” challenges. Abel relies on her personal ideas of what getting ‘black’ and getting ‘white’ means to her, projecting her personal racial categories onto Twyla and Roberta. Abel can not see herself in Roberta and for that reason concludes that she should be distinct, racially. What this story emphasizes, though, is that relying on stereotypes as Abel and Fragd do is harmful in the sense that it ‘others’ men and women. Abel decides that Roberta is black just because her look causes her to stand out. Roberta’s hair is wild, in contrast to what she photographs white women’s hair to be. Due to the truth that Roberta does not seem to be recognizably white, Abel concludes that Roberta need to be black simply because a white girl can not have “wild hair” or “big hoop earrings.” Abel is arguing that Roberta’s traits do no signify whiteness, they signify otherness and therefore, blackness. In this sense, Abel is generating racial categories primarily based on stereotypes and what she views whiteness not to be. This is essential since it areas white in the superior position to black. If Roberta does not display any indicators according to ‘whiteness –’ or rather, what the racial category entails – then by default, she is black. She is not mentioned to be displaying indicators of ‘blackness,’ but rather, is described as showing signs of what white is not. This way of pondering tends to make “otherness” synonymous with “blackness,” a view that “Recitatif” rightfully challenges in its racial ambiguity. Relying on these signifiers is hazardous due to the fact they reinforce oppressive stereotypes.
Even though what tends to make Abel think about Roberta to be black are signifiers, I argue that these signifiers resemble stereotypes in the sense that readers such as Abel hold photos and concepts of what ‘black’ looks like and what ‘white’ appears likes. Shanna Greene Benjamin explains that “the impulse to ‘solve’ the racial conundrum permeating ‘Recitatif’ reveals an underlying theme central to Morrison’s quick story. Readers want to be capable to categorize characters a single way or an additional, to ‘know’ race, and they will go to fantastic lengths to assign racial categories if the writer fails to do it for them” (88). The story, then, becomes about racial tropes: who fits into which trope and what tends to make up these tropes? “Recitatif” desires to challenge the second question. The story forces readers to question their own readings of Twyla and Roberta producing readers ask themselves why they choose to categorize Twyla as white and Roberta as black or vice versa. The answer is: their own stereotypes. Racial categories enable stereotypes, consequently, readers are forced to query their personal stereotypes when reading “Recitatif.” When Abel states that Roberta is black simply because she has “wild hair,” she is reinforcing the stereotype that all black folks have “wild hair” even though wild hair is not inherent to any race. What happens to the black girl who does not have this variety of hair? Racial categories – and the stereotypes that they enable – develop a space where individuals who do not match into the tropes of either category are left. These stereotypes are oppressive as they ‘other’ men and women. Stereotypes reinforce the notion that blackness is dependent on getting various from whiteness. Racial categories generate a disconnection in between men and women, not allowing for any hybridity – any deviance from the accepted norm. By reading Twyla and Roberta as characters who match into either race category, readers expose their personal reliance on these oppressive tropes. Though critics such as Abel try to assign a race to Roberta and Twyla, it is clear that any attempt is futile as every single girl resides in that space amongst races.
Morrison understands the power that she has as a writer how men and women – how raced men and women – are represented is ultimately up to the author. Morrison points out in her personal book on literary criticism that she is “a black writer struggling with and via a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of folks and language” (x). As colonization occurs, marginalized peoples are forced to adopt the language of their oppressors – a language which is typically utilized as a tool to further oppress marginalized men and women. Morrison clearly understands that in her own writing, she have to be wary of correct representation. In his book The Negro Character in American Literature, Nelson is concerned with how the African American presence in America during slavery and abolition is presented as a comical, inferior character. Though I argue that the specific tropes Nelson illustrates are not as apparent in more recent operates, racial tropes still exist. “Recitatif” challenges the tropes that writers rely on in order to represent race. As Stanley writes, “race studies, in [its] attempt… to challenge physical and cognitive stereotypes and the material confines related with these stereotypes, often identify charges that… men and women of colour are disabled as a sign of disempowerment, a sign that they need to transcend” (73). Stanley is illustrating the significance of language in suitable representation, placing emphasis on stereotypes. As I have argued, readers preoccupy themselves with seeking for stereotypes to signal Twyla’s and Roberta’s race however, by not conforming to these stereotypes, Morrison makes it not possible for 1 character to be noticed as entirely empowered or disempowered and for that reason, makes it tough for readers to racialize the two girls. The tropes that Morrison makes use of constantly contradict each and every other, confusing readers and additional demonstrating the restricted way of considering that racial categories allow.
Morrison is conscious of the racial categories as well as the signifiers that readers rely on. I argue that she utilizes her expertise in order to expose how exclusive and limiting this way of pondering is. Morrison writes that, historically, the goal of the “American Africanism” presence is to “[establish] hierarchic difference” (63) which I argue “Recitatif” points to when Twyla explains that Roberta can't study (two). “Recitatif” transcends these hierarchic variations by focusing on the similarities among Twyla and Roberta. Due to racism and discrimination, black people are usually not provided fair and equal access to top quality education. Slavery prevents education, abolition makes it inaccessible, and, though education seems to be equally accessible to each Roberta and Twyla, I argue that Morrison incorporates the element of illiteracy to illustrate how, even with much better access to education for everyone, writers have a tendency to rely on the trope of an uneducated African American. In this sense, Stanley’s argument that folks of colour are typically related with a disability is evident inside “Recitatif.” Readers will count on to associate blackness with the disempowered character an uneducated character would reflect this disempowerment completely. This trope of an uneducated black character permits for a hierarchy to kind where the educated white character is above the illiterate black character. This trope is clearly a misrepresentation and yet, is nonetheless widely accepted. Morrison challenges many literary tropes – and with it, racial categories – within “Recitatif,” such as this 1. Twyla also admits that she, herself, does not excel at college because she can't don't forget something (2). Instead of producing a single girl smarter than the other, Morrison creates similarities in between the two. There is no smarter character there is no superior character. Roberta and Twyla are too equivalent for readers to racially categorize. This is crucial simply because Morrison is presenting both a black and a white character in a comparable fashion as an alternative of writing them to fit into fully separate categories. Readers anticipate Morrison to use education in order to represent the race of either girl even so, in this instance Morrison denounces the tropes that writers have come to rely on by not conforming to them.
By not conforming to racial categories, “Recitatif” confuses its readers. In his book, Middleton writes that “[t]he task which lies ahead… is to lift the black self out of the [language] and to affirm these meanings in a medium which can actually be known as a black text, a text whose margins are ruled by the black logos” (47). Although this argument tries to separate white and black in literature, I argue that “Recitatif” undermines this. Middleton is reinforcing the notion that a “black text” should incorporate elements of “black logos,” which I argue nonetheless relies on the use of racial categories. “Recitatif” is not attempting to articulate that white and black individuals are the very same – any American history textbook shows that this kind of statement is incorrect – but rather, articulates the constructs of race. I use education as an instance of tropes in my earlier paragraph nonetheless, there are several other situations where the tropes in “Recitatif” operate to further confuse readers. Readers are meant to be confused. “Recitatif” tends to make the act of racializing the two girls really difficult by creating them seem similar. Morrison does not maintain Twyla in one racial category and Roberta in the other. Instead, every girl can simply fit into either category. “Recitatif” does not conform to the classic methods of writing about race. Neither Twyla nor Roberta can match completely in either racial category, illustrating that these categories are not accurate representations they are constructs in the very same way that feminist theory argues that femininity and masculinity are social constructs. These categories are meaningless when analyzed and function to further oppress marginalized peoples. Racial categories are restrictive as racial identity is not a fixed concept. Racial identity is distinct for everyone, such as for Roberta and Twyla, as evidenced by their confused racialization of Maggie.
Every girl has a connection to Maggie. Not only does Maggie operate at St. Bonny’s but she also reminds Roberta and Twyla of their mothers. When Roberta explains her reasoning for pondering that Maggie is black, Roberta tells Twyla that “[she] just remembers her as old, so old. And due to the fact [Maggie can't talk]… [Roberta thinks Maggie] is crazy. Maggie [is] brought up in an institution like [Roberta’s] mother [is]” (19). As Abel argues, “[t]he two girls’ readings of Maggie turn out to be in turn clues for our readings of them” (472). If Roberta thinks that Maggie is black because of the similarities among her and Roberta’s mother, then it is logical to conclude that Roberta is black. I argue that there requirements to be much more focus paid to the ‘why’ why does Roberta envision Maggie to be a black lady? If Roberta is black, then she has her personal idea of what becoming black indicates. In forming her own race category, Roberta decides that Maggie is black merely because she sees her mother – and herself – in Maggie. On the other hand, if Roberta is white then possibly her worry of becoming comparable to Maggie – a lady who becomes a representation of her absent and sick mother – causes her to separate herself from Maggie. Roberta maintains this separation by categorizing her as black, one thing that Roberta can by no means be. If this is true, then Roberta is othering Maggie, characterizing her as black due to the fact she desires Maggie to be different from her personal white self. Whether or not Roberta considers Maggie to be black due to the fact she, herself is black or because she is othering Maggie, Roberta is nevertheless creating her personal racial category and figuring out Maggie’s race-primarily based off of how properly she fits into either category. It is crucial, even though, that Roberta creates these racial categories – they are not fixed – and as a result, Roberta’s categorizing of Maggie is debatable.
Twyla, related to Roberta, also sees her mother in Maggie, referring to Maggie as her “dancing mother” (17). As opposed to Roberta, though, Twyla is not convinced that Maggie is black. In reality, Twyla is “puzzled by [Roberta] telling [her] Maggie [is] black” (17). Once more, Twyla might see Maggie as white because Twyla’s personal mother is white, comparable to how Roberta concludes that Maggie is black. What is critical is that Twyla has differing racial categories to Roberta’s, additional demonstrating that racial tropes, stereotypes, and categories are not fixed they are indefinite constructs misrepresenting the black and white presence inside literature. Both Roberta and Twyla showcase conflicting suggestions of race, proving that racial categories are not fixed, they are constructs. Conversely, Twyla’s personal adverse feelings linked with her mother might motivate her to distance herself from her mother. Twyla ‘others’ her mother when she draws interest to her clothes during the church scene, equivalent to when Abel other individuals Roberta for her hair and earrings (4). In this sense, Twyla’s ‘othering’ of her mother may well translate into her ‘othering’ of Maggie, comparable to how Roberta could be othering Maggie in order to distance herself from Maggie. An argument can be made that Twyla considers Maggie to be white since Twyla does not want to see far more of herself in Maggie. Twyla and Roberta are each confused by their own racial categories leaving them, and the readers, in confusion.
There is no answer at the finish of “Recitatif” with regards to Maggie’s race. Instead, Maggie appears to fit into each racial categories, according to Twyla and Roberta. The debate more than regardless of whether Maggie is white or black is incredibly crucial. Like “Recitatif’s” readers, Twyla and Roberta are consumed with categorizing Maggie as either black or white. This deliberation illustrates the reality that literature and language itself disallows any discrepancy. There is no in-in between for both the reader’s racialization of Twyla and Roberta, and the girls’ racialization of Maggie. Racial categories reflect the idea of mono-culturalism however, by not preserving racial ambiguity, Recitatif rejects the thought of mono-culturalism. As Homi Bhabha introduces the thought of hybridity, this text reflects that identical principle: it is not constantly merely black or white but rather, black and white. The difference is that mono-culturalism creates a distinct separation among black and white, not permitting for any cross over. Cultural hybridity allows for a connection to form. Maggie is described as being neither black nor white. This confusion does not signal that Twyla and Roberta have faulty memories, but rather that they do not have a way of defining someone who is neither black nor white, but is both. This restrictiveness is triggered by the concepts surrounding mono-culturalism. Maggie represents the hybridity that Bhabha explains, rejecting mono-culturalism. The cause why the two girls are confused when they try to racialize Maggie is due to the fact racial categories do not allow for hybridity. Neither Twyla nor Roberta fit into a single racial category, and as both girls learn, neither does Maggie. “Recitatif” ignores the standard racial categories, rendering them meaningless, and exposing how readers and writers have come to rely on these unstable constructs.
Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” defies traditional racial categories that Western culture establishes. The racial ambiguity within the story calls the readers’ personal reliance on stereotypes into question. If race is not explicitly stated, readers must rely on their personal perceptions of what black or white looks like. In attempting to racialize Twyla and Roberta, readers are faced with their personal use of racial categories. Readers attempt to draw words and phrases out of the text that signify the ‘blackness’ or the ‘whiteness’ of either girl, exposing the stereotypes that arise from forming racial categories. Attempts to racialize Twyla and Roberta are shown to be futile as Morrison establishes the power she has to represent the black and white presence. By not complying to traditional techniques of writing raced characters, Morrison articulates that relying on racial categories is a misrepresentation. Racial categories are exclusive men and women who do not match into them – people like Twyla, Roberta, and Maggie – are left outdoors of these categories and seemingly do not belong in society. Similar to how readers attempt to racialize Twyla and Roberta, Twyla and Roberta locate themselves attempting to racialize Maggie. The racial categories that Western society gives do not permit for Maggie to belong to either the black or white category and but, she represents both. “Recitatif” exposes the exclusivity of Western constructs of race by not conforming to standard conceptions about race.
Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Essential Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, 1993, pp. 470–498., www.jstor.org/stable/1343961.
Benjamin, Shanna Greene. “The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Evaluation of Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif.’” Research in American Fiction, vol. 40, issue 1, 2013, pp. 87–106. Project MUSE, Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.library.carleton.ca/post/507678/pdf
Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Inquiries of Ambivalence and Authority below a tree outside Delhi, Might 1817.” Vital Inquiry. Vol. 12.1, 1985. 144-165. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. 1st Vintage Books ed., Vintage Books, 1992.
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” Chandler Unified School District, 1983, https://www.cusd80.com/cms/lib/AZ01001175/Centricity/Domain/1073/Morrison_recitatifessay.doc.pdf. Accessed three December 2017.
Nelson, John Herbert. The Negro Character in American Literature. 1st AMS ed., AMS Press, 1970.
Powell, Timothy B. “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page.” Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Modern Criticism. David L. Middleton. Vol. 30, 1997, pp. 45 – 60.
Schur, Richard L. “Locating ‘Paradise’ in the Post-Civil Rights Era: Toni Morrison and Crucial Race Theory.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 45, no. 2, 2004, pp. 276–299. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/steady/3593567.
Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto. “Maggie in Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’: The Africanist Presence and Disability Studies.” MELUS, vol. 36, no. two, 2011, pp. 71–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/steady/23035281.
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