“Recitatif,” the late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s only short story, is explicitly concerned with race. When this new edition appeared on my Kindle yesterday, I thought, what a fortuitous time for the rerelease of this story. So far this week we’ve had a firestorm over the president’s commitment to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court and a slightly smaller firestorm over a Black actress saying that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, and it’s only Wednesday. But this is an illusion. I live in the United States. Name a week in the last fifty years when a short story about race wouldn’t have seemed eerily topical.
In “Recitatif,” Twyla and Roberta meet as children, two little girls shunted into St. Bonny’s, a children’s home. Alone among the children, these girls have living mothers. Twyla’s is irresponsible; Roberta’s is sick. Because these girls have living parents, because they are abandoned rather than simply unlucky, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder at the home. Well, not quite the lowest rung — they are a step ahead of Maggie, a mute kitchen worker who is bullied by the older girls:
Maggie fell down there once. . . . And the big girls laughed at her. We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked.
The girls share a room for a few weeks, and then they go home. They meet up a few times in future years. They occupy different social strata as adults and, perhaps for that reason, they remember parts of their time at the children’s home very differently. In particular, they cannot agree on their interactions with Maggie.
Morrison’s story has a trap at its center: we know that Twyla and Roberta are of different races. But Morrison never tells us who’s who. You can guess, but to guess is to fall into Morrison’s trap. Every guess you make reveals something about yourself and your perceptions of race and class, perceptions that you may not have been aware that you had. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to finish it without feeling at least a little uneasy about your own unexamined prejudices. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it,” writes Zadie Smith in an excellent, thoughtful introduction. “The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Smith seems to believe that Twyla, the viewpoint character, is probably Black; I very tentatively thought she was White.)
“Recitatif,” then, offers two interconnected questions without easy answers: what happened the day that Maggie fell down? And are Twyla and Roberta Black and White, or White and Black? Once you reflect on these questions for a little while, you realize there is a third: Does your perception of the race of these girls affect how you think about Maggie and the day that she fell? And even a fourth: Does the story hit different if you switch the races of the girls in your mind? The more you read the story, the more you feel that you are standing on shifting sand. All I can say for certain is that one girl ended up rich and the other ended up poor, but neither of them ever really left the children’s home behind. Two girls, with different pasts and different futures, both destined to be haunted forever by their experiences in the home. Experiences that they shared, but cannot even agree on.
It struck me as I typed the last paragraph that maybe this is what all of our fights about race boil down to: history that we share but can’t agree on. History that we keep trying to rearrange in our minds, because the rearrangement will allow us to believe we live in a world that is mostly good and just. That’s over now, we say. It was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter today. We tell ourselves the biggest lie of all: It was a different time, people didn’t understand.
But although the reader can’t be certain of the truth about what happened at St. Bonny’s, it is possible to know the truth of history, if we’re only willing to look at it. Maybe it comforts you to think that your Confederate ancestor just believed in states’ rights really fervently. Maybe you find it easier to make a passionate argument against affirmative action if you pretend centuries of chattel slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and redlining didn’t happen. Maybe you feel less unsettled if you think of the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated by a small but uniquely evil group of men rather than a race-based genocide that most of the population colluded in. But the comfort you take in those beliefs can’t make them true.
What we keep learning over and over again is that the past finds you and won’t let you rest no matter how hard you try to hide from it. This is the reality that Roberta and Twyla face in their last meeting, a meeting that ends with Roberta wiping away confused tears. And it’s the reality we face as a nation, every time another firestorm over race erupts and we’re faced with another piece of history we can’t bear to look at head-on.