Impossible to Tell

Submitted By:
Liz Duffy, International Schools Services (ISS), Princeton, NJ

Recitatif by Toni Morrison
Random House, February 1, 2022

Toni Morrison's only published short story, Recitatif, was reissued in 2022 by Random House to critical acclaim. The story follows two women, Twyla and Roberta, who first meet as eight-year-olds when they live temporarily at a shelter for wards of the State. They lose touch but then reconnect years later as adults, which prompts them to remember with fresh eyes events that happened during their time at the shelter. We learn that Twyla and Roberta are of mixed race, that is, one is White and the other is Black. The genius of Morrison's short story is that she removes all racial codes, so it is impossible to tell which is which. But that doesn't stop the reader from looking for clues in their backgrounds and experiences to determine their races. Just that act of trying to figure out the characters' races confronts the reader with the many racial stereotypes and unconscious biases that we all hold given the cultures in which we've grown up. In the short story, the characters also come to terms with how racial and socio-economic stereotypes affected their actions. Recitatif is a powerful text to teach students about unconscious bias and privilege and to generate important conversation about race, class, and justice. The Random House edition of the short story includes an insightful introduction by Zadie Smith, which unpacks and reinforces the themes of the book.

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