"My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s." Thus begins Twyla’s narrative of her long-term, intermittent relationship with Roberta, another eight-year-old who shares her failing grades and "not real orphan" status at St. Bonaventure’s, the shelter where they live for a few months.

The two girls become fast friends despite the discomfort occasioned by the situation, their problematic mothers (Roberta’s is hyper-religious and unfriendly; Twyla’s is pretty but childlike, an embarrassment to Twyla because of her casual clothing and behavior), and their racial differences (one is white, one African-American). They also share a defining moment, in which they watch bigger girls assault Maggie, a disabled woman who works in the institution’s kitchen.

The girls meet by accident four more times; as young adults in a Howard Johnson’s, where Twyla works and Roberta stops in with two young men on the way to the coast for "an appointment with Hendrix"; in a grocery store in Newburgh, the blue-collar town on the Hudson river where Twyla lives (Roberta lives in white-collar Annandale); at a picket line against a busing plan (Roberta is protesting the busing; Twyla ends up picketing for it); and finally in a diner on Christmas Eve. Each time they meet, they piece together what has happened in their lives, but also return to the defining moment of Maggie, arguing about what really happened and what role they played in the abuse.


The story is a wonderful classroom tool for discussing stereotypes of embodied differences like race, class, and disability. While the characters and text are attentive to race and other issues of difference, it is impossible to tell which girl is white and which is African-American, much as readers try to decode various "clues" of detail and syntax to establish racial identity. The story dramatizes the social body’s simultaneous construction on more than one axis (race, ability/disability, socioeconomic class) and how in our perceptions and representations, stigma in one category can easily slip into a position of stigma in another one (being disabled and being black, for example).

Twyla’s realization that Maggie is, in some sense, her "dancing mother" exemplifies this awareness. The fact that in the world of St. Bonny’s, in which all the children are disenfranchised, the lowest person in the hierarchy is Maggie, is a rich source for discussion as well. The title "Recitatif" emphasizes the story’s brilliant exploration of the work of memory and the power of successive returns to the same traumatic events in the company of another person less committed to preserving a safe version of what happened.

Primary Source

Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women



Place Published

New York




Imamu Amiri Baraka & Amina Baraka

Page Count