Roberta is White and Twyla is Black

Modified: 21st Jul 2021
Wordcount: 1018 words

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1st reason: The first scenario that this is apparent in is when the two girls have lunch with their mothers. Each mother is supposed to bring food to the orphanage to have lunch with their daughters, but Twyla’s mother Mary, “didn’t bring anything. So we picked fur and cellophane grass off the mashed Jelly beans and ate them” (Morrison). Roberta’s mother on the other hand, brought a whole feast of “chicken legs, and ham sandwiches, and oranges, and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta drank milk from a thermos…” (Morrison). This economic divide between the mothers of Twyla and Roberta tempts the reader to assume that Roberta must be the white one of the two since her mother can afford to bring food while Twyla and her mother are left eating dirty jelly beans:

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2nd reason: In another scene later on in the lives of Twyla and Roberta, they meet at Twyla’s diner where she works as a waitress. Waitresses can usually be classified as a lower class job and although there are waitresses of both white and black races, in this case, Twyla is the one working as a waitress while Roberta is on a road trip with two men, “…on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix” (Morrison). Considering the popularity of Jimi Hendrix, the reader may assume that Roberta must belong to at least a high-middle class to be able to afford travelling to a one of Hendrix’s concerts. The economic divide between the two women also shows after they have settled down with a family.

3rd reason: Twyla is married to a low class family by the way she describes them, “Half of the population of Newburgh is on welfare now, but to my husband’s family it was still some upstate paradise…” (Morrison). Roberta on the other hand, is living a luxurious life and there are many signs that show it, such as the way she dresses, “Diamonds on her hand, a smart white summer dress” (Morrison), the way she shops for “fancy water” (Morrison) over regular water, her access to two servants and a “dark blue limousine” (Morrison) and how she was fortunate enough to marry a man who lived in Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives” (Morrison). The enormous class and economic divides between Roberta and Twyla are leading factors in the reader’s decision concerning Roberta and Twyla’s race.

4th reason: Another important factor of racial classification is the attitude of Roberta and Twyla towards each other and racial issues. The way Roberta’s mother acts when first meeting Twyla’s mother shows that she regards Twyla and her mother as inferior, as Twyla’s mother gestures for a handshake, “Roberta’s mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too. She didn’t say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her bible-free hand and stepped out of line, walking quickly to the rear of it” (Morrison).

5th reason: The reactions of Twyla and Roberta to the desegregation of public schools can also be an indicator of their races. Historically, African Americans were the ones to push for desegregation while white people were the ones to oppose it. Twyla seems to be positive about the desegregation, “Joseph was on the list of kids to be transferred from the junior high school to another one at some far-out-of-the-way place and I thought it was a good thing until I heard it was a bad thing” (Morrison). Roberta on the other hand, is actively protesting against the desegregation movement

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6th reason: While there are many subtle signs of Maggie’s race, the only important part of her race is that Roberta thinks that Maggie is black and Twyla thinks the exact opposite, “What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black” (Morrison). Maggie’s race being the opposite of Twyla and Roberta’s races, assuming that the reader concludes that Twyla is black and Roberta is white, is important because the girls seem as if they would not have kicked Maggie if she were of the same race. Roberta admits to kicking Maggie, “‘…and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream” (Morrison) and Twyla only disagrees that Maggie is not black, saying nothing about the act of kicking her. This prompts the reader to believe that Twyla is morally fine about kicking a white person, but not a black person, and that Roberta is morally fine with kicking a black person, but not a white person. Maggie is thus another sign that Twyla is black and Roberta is white.

Conclution: By skillfully using ambiguous signs in the beginning to make her reader want to fill in the void of the races of Twyla and Roberta, Morrison makes her readers very susceptible to her stronger signs of wealth and class stereotypes, and racial attitude stereotypes to make her reader decide on the race of Twyla and Roberta. She does this without using any detail that can give away the race of Twyla and Roberta. After having her readers conclude the race of Twyla and Roberta, Morrison allows her readers to rethink their racial conclusions by using Maggie to destroy the racial constructs that they have developed from racial stereotypes and signs. In the final words of Recitatif, “Oh shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie” (Morrison), Morrison collapses the racial constructs that the reader has built throughout the story. I realize after treading that quote that I unconsciously came to the conclusion that Twyla is black and Roberta is white without ever having read a solid clue as to what their races are. I can come to this subconscious decision by basing my racial conclusion purely on societal stereotypes such that white people will generally be wealthier than black people and have a certain views about racial issues that differ from black people. Recitatif does an incredible job at making its readers realize that a lot of their racial constructs are based solely on racial stereotypes and signs


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