Social Fact, Biological Fiction: The Deconstruction of Race in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

Seminar Paper, 2008

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Race as a Classificatory Category in Science
1.2. Gender in Scientific Discourse

2. Representation of Non-Mainstream Racial Identity

3. Gender in “Recitatif”

4. Social Fact, Biological Fiction – Race in “Recitatif”

5. Summary, Conclusion and Outlook


1. Introduction

This term paper is going to deal with notions of race and, to a lesser degree, gender as presented in Toni Morrison’s only published short story “Recitatif” which is about two girls, Twyla and Roberta, one of which is white while the other one is black. Who exactly is black and who is white we never come to know, though. In this short story Toni Morrison intends to question first of all notions of race. As Morrison remarks in one of her theoretical texts, she regarded "Recitatif” as an experiment attempting the removal of any racial code from a narrative concerning two characters of different color for whom identity as centered around race is decisive.[1]

The questions I will try to answer are as follows: What is the understanding of the term race as presented by Morrison in “Recitatif”? What are the interrelations of race and gender with regard to Afro-American women? What are the social facts surrounding certain attributes of “race”?

I would like to begin by sketching the relevance of both terms with special focus on their meaning in an Afro-American context.

1.1. Race as a Classificatory Category in Science

“Race” is an anthropological and biological category of differentiation as introduced by the philosophy of enlightenment to classify, describe and comprehend homo sapiens although the notions it is based on can be traced back as far as the earliest writings of humanity. As Kwame Anthony Appiah states[2] even way back then human communities were concerned with differences between “us” and “them”. As is to be expected, the premises around which such communities were created were somewhat different. The Jews in those days derived their sense of community from notions of having been chosen as the elect people of Yahweh and being connected to him and with him in a special way. The Greeks then accounted for the ways in which they differed from neighboring peoples by explaining their toughness and autonomy in terms of the bleak Greek soil that had forced them to adjust and become tough themselves. Later European societies would try to expound their assumed superiority by relating to the idea of biological heredity, heredity being a concept deeply rooted in the European tradition since the common governmental system in Europe was monarchy in which dominion was passed on through descent. Certain moral, intellectual and biological inherited capacities then were regarded as the trait that would make one race superior to others. Specific biological features such as color of skin would be inherited along with others such as intelligence.

What also played a significant role in the construction of categories of race was the Christian faith. Blacks, Asians and Jews were “disbelievers” and therefore considered inferior in the first place. Furthermore, the skin of the Africans was described as being “black”, a color that in the western tradition stands for darkness, evil, chaos and death. “Race” would also come to play an important role in the forging of the European nations since, as explained above, Europeans were familiar with ideas of heredity and descent, therefore national identity came to be thought of as a biological unit consisting of individuals of equal origin sharing certain biological attributes. Someone who would not exhibit those was therefore excluded.[3]

Towards the end of the 19th century within the frame of Darwinist thought, race became a leitmotif in human and social science. Even back then ideological and scientific interests started to blend and intermingle. As early as the 1930s the term race was regarded as questionable and lacking in validity by serious scientists. Nowadays, the term as referring to homo sapiens has been mostly discredited but remains as an ideological trope of difference of the utmost impact. Although there is still some dissent, most geneticists advance the opinion that race as a biological category is meaningless as genetic research has shown that there is more variation among individuals grouped together as a biological race (such as blacks) than between blacks and whites.[4]

A 1992 survey in which 1200 North American anthropologists were questioned whether they disagreed with the claim that there are biological races in homo sapiens provided the following results:[5]

- cultural anthropologists: 53% disagreement
- physical anthropologists: 41% disagreement
When the survey was repeated in 1999 the figures had changed as follows:[6]
- cultural anthropologists: 80% disagreement
- physical anthropologists: 69% disagreement

Even with the disbanding of the concept of biological race in the academic world the term has not lost its societal significance. Having been of such tremendous importance for so long the ideas that went along with it are still deeply inscribed into people’s awareness structuring their expectations of behavior and cultural background towards individuals of certain physical appearances, for example dark skin and curly hair.

To anticipate some of the points I am going to elaborate on later in my term paper, it is Toni Morrison’s intention to demonstrate race as a socially constructed category (i.e. a category that was devised by members of a society for a certain purpose and exists only because people agreed on its existence) that shapes the way in which people perceive of each other.

Meanwhile, it is common opinion that race is not biologically but culturally determined and therefore very close in meaning to the term “ethnicity”. Attempts to replace race by “ethnic difference” have so far been met with skepticism by representatives of ethnic minorities. Also, as long as discrimination based on attributes such as color of skin is still social reality the term race still has not become obsolete. Subsequently, theorists such as Cornel West[7] tried to subvert the concept by providing it with a new meaning (race was perceived of as comprising the possibility of creating a community and a focus centered around endeavors of emancipation) and by using it to demarcate e.g. black culture from white mainstream.

Scholars such as H.L. Gates and the aforementioned K.A. Appiah consider race one of the foundational concepts of staging in literature ideas such as history, national identity and culture. The current state of affairs in discussions of the concept of race then has been influenced by Toni Morrison in a considerable way. She argued that race is the “operating system” of the literary canon though it is never made explicit as such. Suppressing the use to which it is put can therefore not be a way of overcoming mechanisms of oppression.


[1] Morrison, Toni, Im Dunkeln spielen: Weisse Kultur und literarische Imagination, Hamburg: Rowohlt 1994: 14

[2] Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “Race,” In Frank Letricchia/Thomas McLaughlin (eds.) Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1990: 274

[3] Appiah in Letricchia/McLaughlin 1990: 276

[4] Travassos, Claudia/ Williams, David R.” The concept and measurement of race and their relationship to public health: a review focused on Brazil and the United States” Scientific Electronic Library Online. June 2004. SciELO. 02.08.2008 <>

[5] Hallead, Glen/ Hampton, Raymond E./Lieberman, Leonard/ Littlefield, Alice, "Race in Biology and Anthropology: A Study of College Texts and Professors,"Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29 1992:301-321

[6] Lieberman, Leonard. “How “Caucasoids” Got Such Big Crania and Why They Shrank: From Morton to Rushton” The University of Western Ontario. Faculty of Social Science. February 2001. University of Western Ontario. 12.08.2008. <>

[7] West, Cornel, Race Matters, Boston: Beacon Press 1993

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Social Fact, Biological Fiction: The Deconstruction of Race in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”
University of Constance  (Fachgruppe Literaturwissenschaft - British and American Studies)
American Literature and Culture Part Two - Minority Literatures
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Social, Fact, Biological, Fiction, Deconstruction, Race, Toni, Morrison’s
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Stefan Löchle (Author), 2008, Social Fact, Biological Fiction: The Deconstruction of Race in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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