What Is the Plot of Toni Morrison's "Recitatif"?

Toni Morrison's 1983 short story, "Recitatif," chronicles the uncertain friendship of an African American woman and her Caucasian counterpart from its childhood beginnings to eventual adulthood, while the world changes around them. Throughout, Morrison intentionally obfuscates the racial identities of main characters Twyla and Roberta, never clearly delineating which woman is black and which is white.

Twyla and Roberta's first contact occurs at a state-run orphanage. Though initially at odds, the girls realize their similarities outweigh their differences and they become allies. They have a common enemy, the older girls one floor above, and both resent having been handed off to the state by their self-centered mothers.

The girls reunite eight years later. It's the '60s and things have changed: Twyla counts the minutes at her dead-end waitress job while Roberta's hanging with hippies and rocking out to Jimi Hendrix. Both exhibit clear disapproval of each other's lives.

Coincidence brings them together again, about 20 years after they first met at the orphanage. The women have husbands now and run into each other, purely by happenstance, while grocery shopping. Roberta's well-off and Twyla's living a lower middle-class lifestyle. Despite their disparate circumstances, however, the differences of two decades earlier have essentially disappeared. It's a happy reunion, full of mutual memories of days gone by.

Their next reunion occurs years later when the busing controversy comes to Twyla's upstate NY town. Roberta's protest of the desegregation mandate leads to a contentious interaction between the two and almost escalates into actual violence on behalf of the other protesters. As a result, Twyla conducts a counter-protest in direct opposition to her friend.

Their final encounter takes place years later on Christmas Eve. The women share a conciliatory conversation about their past, seeming to mend fences. Ultimately, however, their conversation - and the story itself - ends ambiguously.