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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Toni Morrison (b. 1931)

[3042] Anonymous, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A Young Woman at the March with a Banner] (1963), courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives and Records Administration.

Unlike many African American authors, Toni Morrison has set most of her fiction not in the rural South or the urban North but in Lorain, Ohio, where she was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931. She attended Howard and Cornell Universities before beginning careers in teaching and editing. While teaching, Morrison counted among her students civil rights activist Stokeley Carmichael and prominent literary and cultural critic Houston A. Baker Jr.; while editing for Random House, she worked with Muhammad Ali and Toni Cade Bambara. Her novels include The Bluest EyeSong of SolomonTar BabyJazz, and Sula. One of the most prominent African American woman authors in the nation’s history, Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize, which she did in 1993.

Morrison is best known as the author of the 1987 Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, which tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave haunted by memories and by the ghost of her daughter, Beloved, whom she killed as an infant because she did not want her to live as a slave. Morrison’s portrayals of the brutality of the slave system recall the atrocities depicted in Harriet Jacobs’s and Frederick Douglass’s slave narratives. The novel sparked discussion about how the nation should attempt to heal from the wounds caused by slavery: was it best to literally live with the past, like Sethe, or to try to move into the future, like other characters in the novel?

In “Recitatif,” too, Morrison explores the role of memory in shaping women’s consciousness. Morrison tells the stories of two childhood friends, one white and one black, as they move into adulthood during the civil rights era. The twist is that she does not identify which woman belongs to which race. While some readers have felt that this “trick” is unnecessarily manipulative, by denying this information to the reader, Morrison highlights the human urge to categorize people. Without diminishing the very real consequences of racial difference, Morrison points out the absurdities of racial stereotyping by providing racial “markers” that serve to confuse rather than clarify her characters’ races.

Teaching Tips

  • When you assign “Recitatif” to your class, provide background historical information about racial desegregation in schools (you can consult an online encyclopedia and/or see Unit 15) or ask students to briefly research the topic themselves. You might start by asking them to find out what “segregation” was. If your students are familiar with the topic before class discussion, you will be able to address the picketing scenes in a more sophisticated way. For example, you can ask your students to discuss the “sides” of the battle: Why did some people want desegregation? Why did some not want it?
  • Students will want to attempt to identify Twyla’s and Roberta’s races, so this is a good opportunity to discuss how and why people stereotype each other as well as the pitfalls of doing so. You could start your discussion by assigning certain pages to groups of students and asking them to identify where Morrison uses phrases or ideas that could be considered “racial markers.”

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does “recitatif” mean? Why does Morrison use it for the title of her story?
  2. Comprehension: Identify Roberta’s and Twyla’s races based on textual clues. How do you know? Are you sure? Why or why not? How does any uncertainty affect your reading of the story?
  3. Comprehension: Why do Roberta and Twyla have to live in the orphanage as children? How are they different from the other children there?
  4. Context: Why did some people oppose and some support racial desegregation in schools? What issues were involved?
  5. Context: In the story, the town of Newburgh has changed dramatically because of an influx of IBM employees. For example, the Food Emporium stocks very different types of food for the new residents. Consider these changes in relation to “urban renewal” and “urban relocation.”
  6. Context: Think about this story while you analyze images of protesters in the archive. Interpret the language of picketing signs, as well as the picketers’ facial expressions and body language. What are they “saying”?
  7. Exploration: Why are Twyla’s and Roberta’s diverging memories of Maggie so important? Consider Maggie’s race, her muteness, and her abuse by the schoolgirls. What does Morrison suggest about why people remember things in certain ways?
  8. Exploration: Roberta and Twyla picket over the issue of racial desegregation in schools, each holding signs that are as much about their personal relationship as they are about the larger issues. In Twyla’s words, “People changed signs from time to time, but Roberta never did and neither did I. Actually my sign didn’t make sense without Roberta’s.” What do their signs mean and why do they make sense only together? Also, think about the prevalence of marches and protests at this time. Why did people march for rights? Was it effective?
  9. Exploration: Newburgh has changed since its former sleepy days, but James’s family has fond memories of an earlier time in the community, and Twyla “can see them all together on the Hudson in a raggedy skiff.” Compare the “old” and “new” Newburgh to the “old” and “new” Hudson River Valley community in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” Consider the narrators’ roles in shaping these histories.

Selected Archive Items

[2254] Abbie Rowe, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), 
courtesy of the National Park Service, Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement. 
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many groups, including African Americans seeking greater equality and civil rights, used marches and nonviolent protests to make their voices heard. The sight of thousands of protesters marching in front of the White House was powerful and made causes like that of these marchers hard to ignore. This non-violent approach contrasts with the radicalism of Black Arts movement writers and the Black Panthers.

[3042] Anonymous, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A Young Woman at the March with a Banner] (1963), 
courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives and Records Administration. 
The civil rights marches in Washington, D.C., and throughout the South during the late 1950s and 1960s made the cause of equality for African Americans visible to the nation. Beyond the right to vote and equal education, African Americans demanded access to good jobs, homes, and other basic opportunities and constitutional rights. “I have come to believe over and over again,” poet Audre Lorde said, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

[3266] National Park Service, John F. Kennedy’s Address to the Nation on Civil Rights (1963), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy addressed the United States following the use of National Guard troops to enforce the ruling of a federal court allowing two African American students to attend the University of Alabama. “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents,” Kennedy said. “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

[3603] Harriet Jacobs, Frontispiece from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), 
courtesy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was the first female-authored slave narrative published in the United States. Focusing on the specific plight of enslaved African American women, Jacobs’s autobiography uses the discourse of sentimentality to appeal to a white female readership. In the late twentieth century, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in many ways influenced by slave narratives, describes the brutality of slavery and looks to ways the nation might attempt to heal from the wounds of its past.

[6187] Anonymous, Congress to Unite Women, May 1, 2, 3, ’70: Intermediate School, 333 W. 17 St., N.Y.C. (1970), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
From the same year that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker published their first novels, this poster calls women to one of the many conferences organized to formulate plans of action against oppression. In her article “Playing in the Dark,” Morrison writes: “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, and wholly radicalized world. [F]or me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purpose of the work, becoming.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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