Recitatif is the French word for recitative, which is a type of spoken performance that’s a combination of regular speech and singing, similar to the German term Sprechgesang. It’s typically used in narrative interludes during operas, for instance.

“Recitatif” is Toni Morrison’s one and only published short story; you can read an annotated version online at First published in 1983 in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, it tells the story of Twyla and Roberta, two girls of different races who first meet in an orphanage and bond partly because they’ve been assigned to the same room and partly because the other kids consider them outsiders because their mothers are still alive. The story follows the two characters as they age and provides a microcosm of racial conflict in America and the roles that memory and perception play in that conflict.

One of the many things I admire about the story was Morrison’s ability to omit (or obfuscate) the races of Twyla and Roberta while still offering the reader plenty of rich details about the characters and the settings they move through. It’s clearly the author’s intention to use this obfuscation to force any reasonably intelligent reader to really think about his or her own notions about race and stereotypes.

It’s no easy feat, and stands in stark contrast with the descriptions in works by other African-American authors (for instance, Thulani Davis’ novel 1959, wherein we absolutely know all the characters’ races but get at best generic details about people’s clothes, furniture, food, etc.) It’s not enough to simply omit a character’s skin color; stereotyped racial traits are legion, and Morrison either avoids or deftly employs them. She does a masterful job of assigning Twyla and Roberta traits, backgrounds, accessories and interests that really could be interpreted as either “white” or “black,” depending.

Take Twyla’s and Roberta’s absent mothers as a major example of the racial blurring in the story. Twyla’s mother “danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” Later, we learn that Roberta’s mother is “Bigger than any man and on her chest was the biggest cross I’d ever seen.” It’s a racial stereotype to think of black women as promiscuous/irresponsible (usually via the cultural image of the welfare mother with a brood of children via a dozen different men), yet there are clearly plenty of promiscuous/irresponsible white women in the world. But there’s an equally strong stereotype of the large, fervently religious black woman. We know from the context of the story that one mother is white and the other is black, but given the rest of their descriptions, it’s impossible to choose a race for either with any certainty.

The issue of handling race in my descriptions is one I wrestle with. As a white writer raised in the South, I’m acutely aware that I may be laboring under still-unexamined racist notions. I don’t want to portray my characters in a way that perpetuates stereotypes.

When I was writing my third novel, I tried an experiment. My secondary characters in that book are a variety of races, and I deliberately avoided describing skin color entirely, relying on other cues (clothes, family names, etc.) to convey nationality or ethnicity. The copy editor actually wanted me to put skin color descriptions into the narrative, but I successfully ignored that bit of feedback. Ultimately, very few readers noticed one way or the other – it’s possible that to some, the characters “read” as default Caucasian – but those who did notice seemed a bit perturbed that they couldn’t tell if a particular character was black or white.

I still don’t know if my experiment was worthwhile or not. It did force me to focus on other details, which I’m sure resulted in better descriptions. But because I still worry I may be handing nonwhite characters poorly, I’m going to keep “Recitatif” on hand as a master class in how to use descriptions in truly thought-provoking ways.

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