This semester, I’m teaching Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” again, and every time I teach it something new stands out to me. I read and thought about Morrison’s story in connection with the relationship between the author and her audience. Morrison invites her audience to become a co-creator of the text, and in this manner the author and audience engage within a dialogic where they each seek meaning within the artistic production. As Joyce Irene Middleton puts it, “Morrison positions her reader, a co-creator of the text, as an active participant who not only interprets the text but also, responsibly, creates an empowering language of one’s own.”
Morrison’s bringing together of the author and audience in this manner runs counter to the ways that many of us still engage with literature and art. Instead of actively participating in the dialogic, we ingest the text and let it linger, failing to engage with the work on a personal manner where we begin to ask questions of ourselves. Rather, the text becomes nothing more than a fleeting snack that we devour on our way to the next one. To actively engage with a text as a reader means that we actively participate in the construction of meaning within the text itself. How does this occur when the author does not sit before us and converse with us? How does this work when all we encounter is the text on the page?
Morrison’s “Recitatif” is a text that exemplifies how to achieve this collaborative creation of meaning. The story focuses on two women, Twyla and Roberta, one is white and one is Black. The catch, though, is that Morrison never tells us which woman is Black and which woman is white. She works to liberate language from the constrictions of race that have entangled it, and in this process, she has us confront ourselves as we envision which character is Black and which is white.
As we read the story, we construct the characters in our own mind. This occurs throughout the story, and at various points, our perceptions of the characters’ race shifts, becoming nothing more than shaky ground underneath our feet, highlighting not just our conscious and unconscious thoughts but also the ways that race informs much of our language. One such instance occurs when Twyla’s and Roberta’s mothers come to the orphanage for chapel. After the service, the go and eat lunch, but Twyla’s mom didn’t bring anything, so they have to eat the discarded jelly beans on the ground. Class distinctions arise here, as they do throughout the story, but the undercurrent of racial language also permeates the scene.
Roberta’s mother, on the hand, “brought chicken legs and ham sandwiches and oranges and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams.” In the next paragraph, Twyla states, “The wrong food is always with the wrong people. . . . Roberta just let those chicken legs sit there.” Here, two options arise from the reader’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. There are multiple words and phrases in this section that play upon our thoughts. The discussions of class do this, and in this manner, we may perceive Twyla as Black because her mother is poor, forgetful, and has them eat discarded jelly beans, and Roberta is white because she is more affluent and her mother remembered lunch, thus showing affection. stereotypes surrounding food also arise, and these come in through the use of chicken as part of Roberta’s meal. In the second paragraph, Twyla complains that Roberta wastes the chicken, and this, for some readers, could point to her being Black. On the flip side, the fact that Roberta’s mom brings chicken and ham sandwiches could cause some readers to think she is Black.
These moments lie at the core of “Recitatif.” They exist to confront us as readers, to make us reckon with ourselves and the ways that language structures meaning within our lives. While it it would be good, as Morrison put it in 1984, “not to have to depend on the reader’s literary associations–his literary experience–which can be as much an impoverishment of the reader’s imagination as it is of a writer’s,” we cannot easily disentangle ourselves and leave these associations and connotations at the door before entering into the text. They follow us, pulling at us, gnawing at us, reminding us of the past and linking us to things beyond the words on the page and the authors. They ensnare us.
Harryette Mullen’s “Elliptical” engages us in a similar way as Morrison does. As readers, we are left to fill in the blanks and to construct, within ourselves, the antecedent for “they.” “Elliptical” contains 23 incomplete statements, each ended with a ellipsis. Each contains a third-person-plural pronoun with no antecedent. So, as a reader, we must provide the antecedent and we must fill in the rest of each statement. When we do this, we become an active participant in the creation of meaning. Now, what that creation looks like varies from person to person.
Thinking about “Recitatif,” does the meaning become racial? For example, do we finish each thought with a racial stereotype? The first line read, “They just can’t seem to . . .” Does the “they” refer to Blacks? Whites? Indigenous individuals? Asians? What? As a parent, I could view the “they” as my children, right? While I could do this, my mind immediately goes to race. This occurs, partly, because I have been conditioned, in various ways, to think about some of these lines in a racial manner. For example, I would fill in, “They should try harder . . .” with “to find a job” or “to work for a living instead of selling drugs.” These thoughts are racist and based on stereotypes I was fed throughout my youth, stereotypes of a “welfare queen” and drug culture.
Part of becoming a collaborator alongside the author means I reflect on myself, my biases, my conscious and unconscious racist thoughts. It means that I reflect on who I am and why my mind went to specific areas. It means that I reflect on the language, and how that language has shaped me throughout my life. It means that I reflect on how to counter my own conditioning when I teach my children or my students. It makes me come face to face with myself, my whiteness. For me, this is what becoming an active collaborator means, staring at myself and interrogating myself by looking at the meanings I create as I read.