Maggie in Toni Morrison's "Recitatif": The Africanist Presence and Disability Studies

Article excerpt

Critics have regarded Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" (1983) as a tour de force of racial readings and misreadings--a work exposing society's unspoken racialized codes. (1) In this short story tracing the lives of Twyla and Roberta from their youth in a shelter at St. Bonaventure to various stages of their adulthood, Morrison explores the experiences of two girls of different races, but she never reveals the race of either girl except through a series of social codes that underscore how race may be conflated with class, ambiguous physical traits, and social rituals such as eating certain foods. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison explains, "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" (xi). Thus, it is not surprising that critics have been pre-occupied with the question: Which character is white and which character is black?

Despite or perhaps because of--Morrison's provocative premise, "Recitatif" has excited little critical discussion beyond metadiscursive investigations of the racial and, to some extent, class markers associated with the two central characters. (2) Yet there is a third character inhabiting the fictional recesses of Morrison's work, haunting Twyla's and Roberta's memories: the mute and possibly deaf Maggie. (3) Twyla and Roberta struggle years later to remember a scene in which Maggie, the childlike, elderly kitchen help, is brutalized by the shelter's older "gar girls," (4) and the two main characters argue about whether or not they participated in the beating. Moreover, as they acknowledge that they never knew for certain whether Maggie was deaf as well as mute or whether she was black or white, they realize that their own ambivalent memories of her have been repressed and muted. Critics focusing on Twyla and Roberta either cursorily analyze Maggie's role or interpret it in metaphoric relation to the two main characters. In such readings, Maggie is most commonly associated with representations of silence and absence, or, as Twyla and Roberta observe, with their failed mothers. (5) Interpreted as a negative aesthetic representation rather than a transformable subject, Maggie becomes twice muted--first in the text and then by the critics.

Indeed, while Twyla and Roberta are allowed to change throughout "Recitatif," Maggie is trapped in a disabling cultural discourse. Homi Bhabha argues that at the heart of stereotyping is the "concept of 'fixity' in the ideological construction of otherness" (37). He notes that "fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference," is a "paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition" (37). Thus, in contrast to Twyla and Roberta, Maggie, whose primary marker of difference is her disability, is the one character for whom the novel's "ideological construction of otherness" remains fixed. Yet Morrison ends her story with Roberta's anguished cry, "What the hell happened to Maggie?" (2698), clearly foregrounding Maggie's role in the story. Roberta's final cry is central to Morrison's story. Rather than interrogating how critics read Twyla and Roberta, we may ask: How do Twyla and Roberta read Maggie? In shifting our focus from the cultural signs encasing Twyla and Roberta to those entrapping Maggie, Morrison asks readers to investigate how they read the stigmatized differences embedded in multiple narratives of identity, including race and disability. (6) In situating "Recitatif" within the context of disability theory, I read Maggie as a figure who is entrapped within social boundaries reinforced by what Lennard J. Davis calls the "hegemony of normalcy" (12), yet she also disrupts these specific boundaries. Morrison's narrative invites an exploration of the intersecting identity markers associated with disability and race, as well as a critique of the social processes and practices that shape these constructs. …


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