Race and Memory in Tony Morrison's "Recitatif"

Term Paper, 2014

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Framework
2.1 Individual versus Collective Memory
2.2 Four Formats of Memory: Individual, Social, Political, Cultural
2.3 Memory in the work of Toni Morrison

3 Text Analysis
3.1 Individual Memory in “Recitatif”: Mothers and, “What the hell happened to Maggie?”
3.2 Social Memory in “Recitatif”: James, Joseph and “Jimi Hendrix, asshole.”
3.3 Political Memory in “Recitatif”: The Big Bozo and “The Brady Bunch
3.4 Cultural Memory in “Recitatif”: Race and Reader's Response
3.5 Memories Meet: The Title “Recitatif“

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

[M]emory weighs heavy in what I write, in how I begin and in what I find to be significant. Zora Neale Hurston said, “Like the dead-seeming rock, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.” These “memories within” are the subsoil of my work. But memories and recollections won't give me total access to the unwritten interior life of these people. Only the act of imagination can help me.

Toni Morrison in “The Site of Memory” (1995: 91-2)

1 Introduction

The American historian David L. Blight constitutes a “memory boom” (in Boyer/Wertsch 2009: 238) in various academic disciplines as well as the general public. Autobiographies, documentaries and anniversary celebrations are not merely driven by the media or politics; they reflect a psychological and cultural need. Professional history writing has failed to cater for this public demand. The approach of popular art and culture in dealing with the past however is within the scope of memory studies (cf. ibid. 243-250).

Aleida Assmann notes that “[o]ver the last decade, memory has been acknowledged as a ‘leading concept' of cultural studies” (in Goodin/Telly 2006: 210). Both Blight and Assmann find similar reasons: The 20th and 21st century has witnessed many so-called "cultural traumas”, from slavery to the Holocaust up until the more recent 9/11 attacks1 ; memories of these events need to be processed. The declining generation of Holocaust survivors e.g. calls for a translation of their experience into mediated forms of memory, not only for legal reasons but also for a collective moral responsibility. Also, many ethnic minorities or formerly colonized nations still try to recover their own narratives and memories in a postcolonial situation (cf. ibid.: 210-1). Particularly in a multicultural society like America, different perceptions and interests cause controversies over how traumatic memories are integrated in a coherent national narrative (cf. Blight in Boyer/Wertsch 2009: 246). A brief view on only some of the aspects of memory studies shows how relevant and also rewarding this field of research is.

African American author Toni Morrison mentions memory as a central theme of her work2. While Morrison's novels have been approached from this angle, her only short story “Recitatif” has mostly been read as a comment on race relations and stereotypes3. This paper shifts focus from race towards individual and collective memory as vital elements of this story. Still, the issue of race can be integrated in the larger concept of collective memory.

The approach will be as follows: First, the general background of individual versus collective memory is given. Then, four “formats of memory” according to Aleida Assmann will be defined. After a brief introduction of memory in the work of Toni Morrison, her short story “Recitatif” will be analyzed in the light of the previously outlined concepts of memory. Finally and very briefly, collective memory and race relations in America are looked at in the example of the 2008 presidential election campaign of Barack Obama.

2 Theoretical Framework

2.1 Individual versus Collective Memory

When the term “collective memory“ was first introduced into the field of sociology by Maurice Halbwachs in 1925, his ideas initially did not find much approval (cf. Halbwachs 1980: 12). Nowadays, the academic world mostly values his work as it has formed the basis for a wider approach of memory. Although the term has meanwhile entered the language of everyday life and the media, it's definition is still negotiated amongst scholars in relevant disciplines such as anthropology, history, sociology or cultural studies. The use of one universal theory of “collective memory” across these diverse disciplines is challenging, and there is an ongoing debate about its meaning and scope. “Individual memory”, in contrast, has been a central concept of psychology for a much longer period and a shared vocabulary of “long-term” and “short-term memory”, “semantic” and “episodic memory” has been established by now (cf. Wertsch 2009: 117).

Psychological study of individual memory still relies on methodology that attempts to investigate individual memory isolated from other mental processes. One of the key questions of its research is the accuracy of individual memory. Memory studies in other fields seek to understand the connection of individual memory and collective memory; they are aware of the conflicts and negotiations that are inherent in a broader agenda of identity and discourse (cf. ibid. 121-4).

2.2 Four Formats of Memory: Individual, Social, Political, Cultural

Aleida Assmann in “Memory, Individual and Collective“ (in Goodin/Telly 2006: 210-24) argues that the simple distinction between individual and collective memory is too vague. Individuals are members of different collectives such as friends, family and neighborhood on the one hand, and a generation, society and culture on the other. The individual combines and contributes to various dimensions of memory by interacting and identifying on these levels. Assmann thus suggests four “formats of memory”, which will be introduced subsequently: individual memory, social memory, political memory and cultural memory. Although crucial distinctions can be made, these categories are not clear-cut but intersect and mutually inform each other.

On the level of individual memory, autobiographical subjective experiences are ‘emplotted' in a life story that construct the image of one's unique identity. Fragmentary and isolated episodes are joined retrospectively into a larger narrative. A large proportion of one's memory is dormant; some memories may surface through arbitrary external triggers while a large portion remains inaccessible or repressed, especially those of traumatic events. Individual memory is selective; awakened memories may or may not be used for further processing, and the criteria of relevance change with age and living conditions. Fragmentation and selection makes individual memory unreliable. Social interactions within a larger network of other people's memories lead to readjustment: one's own memories are confirmed or corrected, “thus they do not only acquire coherence and consistency, but also create social bonds” (ibid. 213). Individual memory as a basis for social identity cannot successfully develop in isolation but is necessarily shaped by exchange.

Shared individual experiences within a family or neighborhood can be recycled beyond the life span of the individual through stories and anecdotes, i.e. in oral form. Communities share social memory within a cycle of usually three generations. Social memory does not only occur in a surrounding of close proximity; contemporaries that never meet still partake in a common set of memories that can be distinguished from the memories of previous and succeeding generations. Social memory provides a stable profile for the identity within a generation. This becomes apparent when shifts happen and a new generation enters the public sphere. Symbols and rituals can extend the social memory beyond the succeeding two generations.

Whereas individual and social memory are still “embodied” formats of lived experience, political memory is mediated through public symbols and rituals: museums and monuments, texts and images, education and the media, celebrations and demonstrations - all of these contribute to the formation of group identity on a larger collective dimension such as ethnic groups or the nation, for example. General history is transformed into political memory as it is absorbed and integrated by the individuals through shared forms of knowledge and participation. The aim of institutions in their political action is to organize and elaborate memory in effective ways; they construct a durable and homogeneous identity with which the member of a respective group connects. Top-down selection works through a negotiation of active remembering and forgetting. A positive self image of pride can be generated both by a heroic narrative of winners as well as a narrative of tragic victims and sacrifice. Memories that are more difficult to integrate are often associated with shame and guilt, both on the side of the passive victims as well as the perpetrators. Strategies to deal with such historical traumas include mutual forgetting, shared remembering, or the emergence of subnational countermemories.

All previously introduced levels of memory are organized around remembering and forgetting; cultural memory, on the other hand, includes knowledge that is “neither actively remembered nor totally forgotten” (ibid. 220). A mass of information that is beyond the scope of active human memory is stored and thus remains available for potential use. While a set of active memory is perpetuated for common orientation and against a tendency towards forgetting, the cultural archive is usually not circulated and shared. However, archival cultural memory may be revived at any time, whereas formerly active memory may fade into the background. Political memory strives for stability and homogeneity, cultural memory is more complex and dynamic. It relies on the individuals in their critical and diverse interpretations and reassessments of culture and belonging, e.g. through the medium of literature.

To connect the laid out formats to the concept of individual and collective memory, it can be said that larger groups “do not ‘have' a memory; they ‘make' one for themselves” (ibid. 216), based on the recollection as well as the gaps and exclusions of their members. On the other hand, already Halbwachs has argued that a person does not have a strictly individual memory since “we could think about a certain object only because we act as a member of a group” (1980: 34). The processes of re- member ing and forgetting are the backbone of identity, both for the individuals and their various levels of belonging.

2.3 Memory in the work of Toni Morrison

The work of Toni Morrison is very much concerned with memory. The Tony Morrison Society's “Bench by the Road” initiative e.g. sets up benches on selected sights as public memorials for the sacrifice and trauma of African slaves. The project was inspired by the following quote from Morrison's acceptance speech at Melward Book Award which she received for her novel Beloved:

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn't exist (that I know of), the book had to (Morrison 1988).

As already laid out, literature is an instrument for cultural memory; Morrison's stories have that very function. She calls her writings “village literature, fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe” (LeClair in Taylor-Guthrie 1981: 120). Every village is unique but they do share a collective memory. Morrison invokes the image of “we ‘peasants'”(ibid 121) that struggle to accustom to a new urban situation. She seeks to distinguish elements of the past that are useful from those that are not, and to clarify roles that remain in the dark (cf. ibid. 120-1). Her work touches the level of individual and collective memory, for “you or I” and “we”. She brings back the general to the particular, the public events to the individual experience, she connects the outside with the inside, so that we “get to know what it feels like” (cf. Graham 2008: 39:01-39:16 min).

Besides that, Morrison's writing functions to “confront the nature of these racialized and genderized mappings that are embedded in our cultural memory” (ibid.: 27:05-27:21 min). Her work, on the one hand, aims to translate the past into a present identity. On the other, it challenges the unconscious and consolidated beliefs that are also stored in our cultural knowledge. It does this verily by negotiating the different levels of remembering and forgetting.

It has been argued that Morrison's short story “Recitatif” is read mostly in connection to race. This may be due to the fact that there is little if no mention of the short story in the published collection of interviews with Toni Morrison (cf. Taylor-Guthrie: 1994). One of the few reference by the author herself can be found in the preface of Playing in the Dark:

The only short story I have ever written, “Recitatif”, was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial (1992: xi).

The brief introduction in the field of memory studies has shown that these “racial codes” verily are connected to individual experience and collective memory. In the following section, the short story will be analyzed with respect to the four formats of memory.

3 Text Analysis

3.1 Individual Memory in “Recitatif”: Mothers and, “What the hell happened to Maggie?”

“Recitatif” is organized in temporally consecutive but isolated scenes told by the autodiegetic narrator Twyla; this structure mirrors the episodic character of individual memory4. Two main themes function to connect the four episodes: Twyla and Roberta's mothers and the kitchen maid at the orphanage, Maggie. These motifs are woven through the narrative by invoking the character's respective memories.

The short story opens, “My mother danced all night and Roberta's was sick”. (467) This initially forms the basis for the close friendship between Twyla and Roberta beyond their different racial categories:

“Is your mother sick, too?” / “No,” I said. “She just likes to dance all night.” / “Oh,” she nodded her head, and I liked the way she understood things so fast. For the moment it did not matter that we looked like salt and pepper (468).


1 For a theory on cultural trauma, see e.g. Jeffrey C. Alexander et.al (eds.) Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkley: University of California Press, 2004.

2 Morrison very recently published a book with the title Memory and Meaning (2014, cf. tonimorrisonsociety.org). Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a copy via the university library.

3 For memory in Morrison's novels, see e.g. the keynote address by Maryemma Graham (2008) as listed in the bibliography, or J. Brooks Bouson. Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. For early interpretations of race in “'Recitatif'”, see e.g. the essays by David Goldstein-Shirley (1996 & 1997) or Elisabeth Abel (1993) as listed in the bibliography.

4 Psychologists distinguish between episodic memory which has the role of recollecting events, and semantic memory for learning and use of language (cf. Tulving in Wayne/Tulving 1972: 385-6). For the purpose of this paper, “individual memory” is used synonymously with “episodic memory”.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Race and Memory in Tony Morrison's "Recitatif"
University of Constance  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
American Literature and Culture II
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tony Morrison, Recitatif, Memory Studies, Memory, Assmann
Quote paper
Rüdiger Thomsen (Author), 2014, Race and Memory in Tony Morrison's "Recitatif", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1153718


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