What the hell happened to Maggie? Memory and History of Race in Toni Morrisons's "Recitatif"

Term Paper, 2015

26 Pages, Grade: 1.3




Ways of Reading Recitatif.
Different Formats of Memories
The Approach of Reading Recitatif in "the space in between" the Binaries
First Encounter - Maggie Representing a Marginalized History
Second Encounter - A Shared Desire for Silence about the Past
Third Encounter - Diverging Accounts Introduce the Possibility of Multiple Truths
Fourth Encounter - The Truth Lies in "the space in between"
Fifth Encounter - The Question of Guilt
The Function ofMaggie's Bowed Legs as Parentheses
The Intertwining of History and Memory in "the space in between"




“On all of its levels, memory is defined by an intricate interaction between remembering and forgetting.”[1] This statement certainly includes the term “race”, a term that has, for a long time, been very present in American history and is still of high importance today. Toni Morrison deals to a great extent with this term in her writings, for example her only short story Recitatif, where two girls of different races witness a beating incident in the orphanage “St. Bonny's” they live in and who, in the course of the story, revisit their memories of the incident several times. In the 20th century, many analyses of Recitatif therefore focused on putting racial markers on the two protagonists, showing how Morrison wants to make her readers aware of their own racial stereotypes.

This approach is justified and certainly reveals much of Morrison's intention as the author, but I suggest that the story does not merely deal with racial markers. Hence, this paper will focus on a character that has often been left out: Maggie, the kitchen worker of St. Bonny's. Androne, Stanley and Benjamin are major voices in a small body of Recitatif scholarship that centre on Maggie: Androne offered a ground breaking study focusing on maternal figures, whereas Stanley analyses the story in the light of disability studies.[2] Thus, it will be shown that Maggie has several functions in the text that add to the meaning of the text as well as the understanding for the reader.

This paper will investigate Recitatif in the light of the concepts of memory and history. I claim that through the character of Maggie, readers can better understand the memory and history of the term “race” in American history. It will be shown how the returning and dividing memories of the incident with Maggie challenge Twyla and Roberta to not accept their memory as complete. Furthermore, it will be shown that Maggie's interstitial narrative provides, at least to a certain extent, answers to the implied question driving Recitatif: if memory is so unstable, how can whites and blacks ever communicate effectively about the history they share? I will follow Benjamin's thesis, that we must leave walking on the binaries and start walking “in the space in between”, investigating what can be found in between the binaries of the racial markers of black and white, of physical disability[3] and of the binary victim versus victimizer.

The basis for the following investigation will be a brief introduction into the story's plot and into Assmann's differentiation of four sorts of memory since it reveals how all sorts of memories are built on an interaction of remembering and forgetting.[4]

The second part of the paper will then investigate all five encounters where Twyla and Roberta meet, each encounter highlighting a function of Maggie. The first encounter gives readers the first memory of the incident with Maggie where Twyla as the first person narrator presents Maggie as mute and deaf. Maggie functions as the scapegoat and represents how the unappealing elements of history are actively marginalized.[5] The short second encounter reveals that a clear distinction along the binary of victim and victimizer is not easy to make. Meeting for the third time, a rift between their memories is allowed by Roberta's claim that Maggie did not fall, but was knocked down. Maggie again represents a marginalized history conjured to serve people in the present and the diverging memories challenge the past as fix and firm.[6] Meeting for the fourth time on opposing sides of a bussing issue, racial identity is introduced to Maggie, claiming she was black and therefore challenging the reliability of memory and our records of history. Their final encounter reveals how Maggie takes on a double role - on the one hand both Twyla and Roberta compare their mothers with Maggie, on the other hand they identify themselves with Maggie.[7]

In the third part, the paper will examine two aspects in more detail: firstly, the metaphor of Maggie's leg's as parentheses, a striking metaphor that invites readers to imagine all that remains parenthetical within the main story of the protagonists.[8] I will examine the binary of victim and victimizer on the basis of the concept of mothering and Maggie's connection to America's racialized history, showing how Maggie symbolized the silent truth imbedded within the parenthetical narratives of America's racialized history and how she provides a common ground for the protagonists to explore their conflicting memories of a shared history. Finally, a discussion of the concepts of history and memory will show how, although they appear to be in fundamental opposition, an analysis of “the space in between” will offer the possibility to dialogue about the past and to (re)write racial history together.[9]


Ways of Reading Recitatif

The title Recitatif alludes to the musical term recitatif, a vocal performance in which a narrative is sung rather than spoken. Morrison draws the connection to this musical performance because the plot itself is a “song” that reconstructs the past for the reader[10] and the title alludes to Morrison's haunting yet lyrical recitation of racial (misunderstanding.[11] According to Benjamin, race has been central to American culture and literature and one result of this has been the practice of categorizing people according to race.[12] Since race has become embedded in daily discourse, Morrison in her short story plays with our desire to put racial markers on the protagonists. The most famous way to interpret Recitatif is to use race as a primary critical lens that forces readers to come to terms with their own prejudices and their impulse to fix racial meaning.[13] This paper, though, will not focus on this reading, but attempts to read the readers' frustration in the lens of history and memory. Race surely is central to the story, but “not in the way readers might expect”: Twyla and Roberta argue about their memories of the past and debate shifting politics in the present. Their reckoning of how race has influenced their memories and perspectives prompts the readers to consider the same.[14] Morrison wants the readers' active participation, not only to examine their own assumptions about racial stereotypes but also to rethink how race has shaped their memories. When readers only focus on the opposing ends of the racial spectrum, they lose a crucial layer of meaning imbedded within liminal figures and interstitial narratives. This paper wants to shift focus from the ugly racial tensions to the text's parallel site on which these tensions get played out: to Maggie, a kitchen worker at St. Bonny's. Her interstitial narrative contains answers to the implied question driving Recitatif: if memory is so unstable, how can whites and blacks ever communicate effectively about the history they share?[15] After their shared time at St. Bonny's where the incident with Maggie happened, Roberta and Twyla encounter each other four more times and each time they attempt to revisit and adjust their memories. Before looking at all five encounters in more detail, a short introduction to the different formats of memories will help to understand the process Twyla's and Roberta's memories undergo.

Different Formats of Memories

Over the last years, memory has been acknowledged as one of the “leading concepts” of cultural studies and memory research investigates how we live by our memories, how we are haunted by them, how we use and abuse them. In everyday discourse, we often refer to two forms of memory: individual and collective, but since this dichotomy does little justice to the complex amalgam of memories, Assmann distinguishes four formats of memory: individual, social, political and cultural memory.[16]

Firstly, for our individual memory it is important to know that as human beings we have to rely on it, because memory makes human beings human. The individual memory is indispensable because identity, as well as the implicated self-definition and self-narrative, are almost certainly activated from memory.[17] Assmann points out though, that human memory is not designed for accurate representations of past experiences and therefore unreliable. Furthermore, there are also inaccessible memories, so called “repressed” memories, which are locked up and guarded by taboos or trauma and too painful or shameful to be recalled.[18] For the following analysis of Recitatif, Twyla's memories will be considered as repressed memories that slowly come to the surface and only then are able to be readjusted.

According to Maurice Halbwachs, French sociologist and memory theoretician, a completely isolated individual could not establish any memory at all. Social memory therefore is developed and sustained in interaction with others.[19] In the context of social memory, Assmann highlights one specific form, “episodic” memories; these memories process autobiographical experiences, and since they are bound to a specific stance, they are limited to one perspective and are fragmentary. Hence, in a network of association and communication, these memories are continuously socially readapted, either substantiated and corroborated, or challenged and corrected, and they also create social bonds.[20] Knowing the characteristics of individual and social memory helps to explain the connection between the protagonists who share a common memory of their time in St. Bonny's. Despite their racial difference, the incident with Maggie, although at first a repressed memory, creates a social bond between them. Only in interaction with Roberta, Twyla can, in the course of the story, adjust her memory. Summing up, individual and social memory is embodied and both formats are grounded in lived experience.

In contrast, political and cultural memory are mediated; both are founded on the more durable carriers of material representations and external symbols. Hence, institutions and larger social groups, such as nations or states, do not “have” a memory; they are in need to “make” one with the aid of memorial signs and therefore “construct” an identity. Assmann concludes that such a memory is based on selection and exclusion and she uses national history as an example, where moments of triumph and defeat can be integrated. Yet there are moments that cannot be integrated, such as moments of shame and guilt as well as traumatic experiences that threaten the construction of a positive self-image.[21] In connection to Recitatif, this short introduction has shown that all sorts of memories are built on an interaction of remembering and forgetting. Twyla's and Roberta's memory of the incident with Maggie can therefore clearly not be objective and Morrison challenges us to accept that our memory of the term race is also not objective and complete. In the course of this paper, this process of forgetting and remembering will be analysed in more detail and the paper attempts to draw a connection to American's racial history.

The Approach of Reading Recitatif in “the space in between” the Binaries

Looking at the five encounters of the protagonists, it will be shown how Maggie's representation changes and how readers are lead to recognize how our memory changes our perception of race. The different encounters each highlight different functions of Maggie, functions that have often been analysed along binaries such as racial binaries, concentrating on the racial markers of black and white, or the binaries of physical disability with healthy versus disabled.[22] Another binary often appearing in the discourse of history and memory is the binary victim versus victimizer; all these binaries will be found in the five encounters as will show Maggie's functions. This paper does not merely want to analyse Maggie's functions along these binaries, but attempts, at least to a certain extent, to show how parenthetical, interstitial storylines that exist between racial binaries inspire new ways of reading Maggie. Maggie moves readers to see past the divisive quality of the obvious binaries and invites the reader to take a closer look at the “space in between”.[23]

First Encounter - Maggie Representing a Marginalized History

Twyla and Roberta encounter each other for the first time at St. Bonaventure's, referred to as St. Bonny's, an integrated state-sponsored orphanage and foster care facility for young women and girls in upstate New York. They are not real orphans but are “dumped” at the facility because Twyla's mother “dance[s] all night” and Roberta's mother is sick. Since they are not “real orphans”, the other girls snub at Twyla and Roberta.[24] At the beginning, the two respond negatively to each other because of their racial difference, but these concerns fade as they are left to themselves and they find some solace in their mutual maternal alienation and disconnection. The bond between them is built upon the difference between them and other girls in the home and this bond also conceals complications of race and class.[25] Morrison allows St. Bonny's to be a place of interracial interaction, where girls of many different races must not only engage in renewal but also in outreach to another since all who come there begin from the same point of abandonment. At the same time, Morrison also allows it to be a place of discord, where human potential meets human failure and human catastrophe, revealed in the incident with Maggie: Twyla and Roberta witness the older girls attacking Maggie, a decrepit and apparently mute cook.[26]

At St. Bonny's, Maggie is the character whom Twyla and Roberta can believe no one cares, for even they are isolated as “dumped” girls, they are not as isolated as she appears to be. Although they do not physically participate in the assault of Maggie, their side-line observance of the violent act allows their vicarious participation in it and makes possible their elevation above the speechless, bow-legged hired hand who cannot defend itself. With this, Morrison emphasizes the human need to rise above others[27] and Maggie serves as the character of rejection, representatively standing for all who are rejected; she is “the ugly outcast, the communally disconnected, the deformed.” Maggie is the scapegoat toward whom everyone can feel superior, because although they are “dumped”, they do not have parentheses legs as Maggie.[28]

Looking at the binaries of disability, it can only be briefly commented on the discourse of disability: Maggie's “legs like parentheses”[29] trap her in a disabling cultural discourse, since her disability helps the girls to construct the “otherness” in an interracial environment. For Stanley, in contrast to Twyla and Roberta, Maggie, whose primary marker of difference is disability, is the one character for whom the novel's “ideological construction of otherness”
remains fixed.[30] It is often argued that race, ethnicity, and gender as cultural representations differ from disability as identity categories, for they align with specific observable traits, whereas disability is marked by a departure from a physical and functional norm. Although it is never confirmed, many believe that Maggie is black [31] and Stanley draws a connection between coloured people and Maggie's disability: women and people of colour have long struggled against a dominant culture that places them in subordinate positions, defined by being outside of white, masculinist norms and therefore, women and people of colour can be seen as “disabled” as a sign of disempowerment. She concludes that the “serviceability of the Africanist presence” is provocatively transposed to the serviceability of the disabled presence in the figure of Maggie.[32]

Attempting to explore the space between binaries, the orchard at St. Bonny's is a site ideally situated for this and Benjamin states that this place establishes the notion that “parenthetical, interstitial narratives create space to explore tensions between binaries”.[33] I would like to focus on one space “in between”, namely the space in between the binaries of victim and victimizer since I claim that these binaries are intertwined. When Twyla first mentions the orchard, she says that “nothing all that important”[34] happened there, but readers find that important events did take place in the orchard and that Maggie's humiliation becomes a central theme to the story. The orchard becomes the place where Twyla and Roberta become both victims and victimizers: on one hand, the older girls group together to victimize all three, Roberta, Twyla and Maggie, and Twyla feels some sting of guilt as she ventures to say “ We should have helped [Maggie] up”[35], when witnessing the ritual of social exclusion enacted against Maggie, but she explains her passivity as a consequence of their fear of the gar girls. Twyla and Roberta are presented through Twyla's memory, as she is the narrator, as victims of the older gar girls, but at the same time they become victimizers of Maggie by calling her names. Seibert concludes that they are able to be victimizers because they have each other and share their pain of abandonment. [36]

To sum up, the first encounter gives readers the first memory of the incident with Maggie and Twyla as the first person narrator presents them as innocent victims. It is the encounter where their memory of Maggie is constructed and it establishes Maggie as a vital part of their memory, since in the course of the story they come to realize that they cannot merely present themselves as victims. Hence, Goldstein-Shirley calls Twyla's comment that “[n]othing really happened here”[37] as most problematic since Twyla tells a retrospective story telling about the past to readers in the present; therefore she ought to know that the incident with Maggie is not only significant but crucial.[38] But since Twyla in her memory presents Maggie as mute and presumable deaf, there is no need for her story and history to include - the history she embodies becomes marginalized. With her inability to speak and (presumably) to hear, Maggie represents how the unappealing elements of history are actively marginalized, or as Benjamin puts it, they are “relegated to parenthetical phrases”.[39]

In the following four encounters, when Twyla and Roberta meet at different moments in their lives, they remember this particular violent and traumatic incident with Maggie. They cannot simply let go of the memory since this memory of Maggie has shaped and become a vital part of their identity and, although first repressed, it becomes the central conflict between the two girls. In fact, before Roberta's departure when the two have their last encounter in the orchard, Twyla depicts it not as a site of recent trauma, but as an idyllic space, permeated with the smell of apple blossoms. This space, first presented as a safe place, is more and more identified with pain and confusion. In every successive encounter, Twyla begins to recover memories of that traumatic space and realizes that something haunting did happen there. But her memories intrude only in fragmented forms, slowly seeping into her consciousness, which identifies them as “repressed”, since they are to overwhelming that they “cannot be integrated into existing mental frameworks”[40].[41] The following encounters inform how the protagonists craft their self-image as adults and the persistence of the “Maggie thing” reveals the permanence of the past in the present and the dangers of speaking definitely for a past that ostensibly has no voice.[42]


[1] See Assmann, Aleida. "Memory, Individual and Collective." In Robert E. Goodin/Charles Tilly (eds.) The

[2] See Androne, Helane Adams. “Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison's “Recitatif” and Viramontes's “Tears on my Pillow”.” MELUS 32.2 (2007): 133-150.; Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto. “Maggie in Toni Morrison's “Recitatif” - The Africanist Presence and Disability Studies.” MELUS 36.2 (2011): 71-88.

[3] See Benjamin, Shanna Greene. “The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Analysis of Toni Morrison's “Recitatif”.” Studies in American Fiction 40.1 (2013): 91-92.

[4] See Assmann 2006.

[5] See Ashford, Tomeiko R. “Transfiguring Aesthetics: Conflation, Identity Denial, and Transference in “Passing Texts” of Black Narrative.” The Review of Black Political Economy (2005): 93.; Harris Trudier. “Watchers Watching Watchers: Positioning Characters and Readers in Baldwin's “Sonny Blues” and Morrison's “Recitatif”.” In Lovalerie King/Lynn Orilla Scott (eds.) James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006: 112.; Benjamin 2013: 94.

[6] See Benjamin 2013: 95-96.

[7] See Seibert, Andrew. “Racial Dynamics: Toni Morrison's “Recitatif”.” The Fogdog Review (2010): n.p. <https://andrsei.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/racial-dvnamics-toni-morrison%E2%80%99s-

%E2%80%9Crecitatif%E2% 80% 9D/>.

[8] See Bennett, Juda. “Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative.” African American Review 35.2 (2001): 213.

[9] See Benjamin 2013: 89, 105.

[10] See Wieland, Lisa Cade. “Recitatif”. In Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu (ed.) The Toni Morrison Encyclopaedia. London: Greenwood Press, 2003: 288.

[11] See Ashford 2005: 91.

[12] See Benjamin 2013: 88.

[13] See Ashford 2005: 93. According to Morris, despite divergent projects, Abel, Harris and Rayson all use race as their primary critical lens, see Morris, Susana M. “’’Sisters Separated For Much Too Long”: Women's Friendship and Power in Toni Morrison's “Recitatif”.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 32.1 (2013): 163.

[14] See Benjamin 2013: 88.

[15] See ibid. 88, 92.; Harris 2006: 112.

[16] See Assmann 2006: 210-211.

[17] See ibid., 212.; Xu, Ben. “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.” In Amritjit Singh/ Joseph T. Skerett Jr./Robert E. Hogan (eds.) Memory, Narrative and Identity. New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994: 262.

[18] See Assmann 2006: 211-212.

[19] See Halbwachs, Maurice. Les Cadres Sociaux de laMemoire. 1st ed. Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan, 1925, repr. 1975 with a foreword by F. Chatelet.

[20] See Assmann 2006: 212-213.

[21] See ibid., 215-218.

[22] See Benjamin 2013: 91.

[23] See ibid., 91.

[24] Morrison 1994: 467-468.

[25] See Androne 2007: 135-136.; Wieland 2003: 288.

[26] See Ashford 2005: 92-93.

[27] See Ashford 2005: 93.

[28] See Harris 2006: 112.

[29] Morrison 1994: 468.

[30] See Stanley 2011: 72.

[31] Harris says that many believe that Maggie is black, see Harris 2006:112.

[32] Morrison analyses the serviceability of the Africanist presence“ in Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1992; Stanley 2011: 73-

[33] Benjamin 2013: 92.

[34] Morrison 1994: 468.

[35] Ibid.

[36] See Seibert 2010: n.p.; Stanley 2011: 75.

[37] Morrison 1994: 468.

[38] See Goldstein-Shirley, David. "Race And Response: Toni Morrison's ’Recitatif." Short Story 5.1 (1997): 81­82. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 29 June 2015.

[39] Benjamin 2013: 94.

[40] Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet As It’s Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000: 7.

[41] See Stanley 2011: 77.

[42] See Benjamin 2013: 94-95.

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What the hell happened to Maggie? Memory and History of Race in Toni Morrisons's "Recitatif"
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Race, Recitatif, American history, Maggie, History
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Janina Madlener (Author), 2015, What the hell happened to Maggie? Memory and History of Race in Toni Morrisons's "Recitatif", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/415673


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