John Weaver

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John Weaver
ENGL 3840
Dr. Kocela
09 Dec. 2003

 Exploring Racial Identity in Toni Morrison‟s “Recitatif,” Louise Erdrich‟s Tracks, and

                                 the Poetry of Cathy Song.

       The American literary experience has, for the most part, been defined in terms of

binary opposites – American anjwead British, realist and romantic, modern and post-

modern, and in terms of race, black and white. The construction of race in American

literature is important to consider because despite the multitude of ethnicities,

nationalities, and people of different colors that compose the melting pot that is the

United States, black and white are traditionally the only races represented in the

American literary canon prior to 1945. It was not until the epoch that scholars define as

contemporary American literature, that race began not to be defined in terms of black and

white, but rather was deconstructed in terms of these binary opposites to simultaneously

allow other ethnicities into the canon, and began to think of race as a social construction.

Authors such as Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and Cathy Song utilize racial identity in

their writing with the intent of viewing race as a property of language, defining a dying

culture through assimilation, and desperately attempting to carve a niche in the American

literary canon, respectively.

       Toni Morrison constructs racial identity in “Recitatif” in such a fashion that

“readers are confronted with a set of deliberate ambiguities about race and its relevance”

to our process of reading the story, the characters, and as a means of identifying people

(Fultz, 26). These ambiguities about the racial identity of the characters causes the reader

to become pre-occupied with affixing a certain skin color to them, based solely upon
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stereotypes and associations the reader creates with the inexplicit clues the story presents

us with. This in turn causes us to question the significance of race as having any value to

the story, our reading process, or as a means of identification. Morrison achieves this feat

through the relationship between Twyla and Roberta, the role of Maggie, and questioning

the existence of race outside of language.

       Though the race of the main characters in “Recitatif,” Twyla and Roberta, is not

specifically identified, the reader is presented with a number of clues regarding their

social status. Morrison challenges us with these clues by posing the question as to

whether we should “desire racial specifity” or think of “each character in a complicated

way – as a person” (Fultz, 26). From the beginning of the story, the only fact the narrator

confirms is that Twyla and Roberta are of a different race, since “they looked like salt

and pepper” (Morrison, 2254). The only other tangible descriptions of the characters

provided are in regards to social class – Roberta has a religious background, lives a

glamorous life touring with Jimi Hendrix after the orphanage, and ends up marrying rich,

while Twyla works at a Howard Johnson after the orphanage, marries a working class

man, and has a mother that loved to dance at night. But to equate class with race is

unreliable and one of the ways that Morrison challenges the reader to question the role of

racial identity. To know whether Twyla and Roberta are white or black adds nothing to

the story. Simply knowing that they are of a different race juxtaposed with the ambiguity

of their racial identity illustrates how readers take race for granted and that to be “vested

in the attribution of race to individual characters” is not Morrison‟s ultimate intention in

writing “Recitatif,” since “race should not and does not matter” (Fultz, 26).
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        Perhaps the biggest clue concerning how racial identity should be viewed in

“Recitatif” is the role of Maggie – the old, mute, physically deformed, “sandy colored”

subject of the girls‟ abuse (Morrison, 2254). The fact that neither Twyla nor Roberta

could remember Maggie‟s race, let alone the fact that they participated in kicking and

beating the old women with the other girls at St. Bonaventure, illustrates the fact that race

is irrelevant in regards to personal relationships – they still beat the woman, and while

their memories of the incident differed greatly, the incident was not a matter of Maggie‟s

race. It was because of Twyla and Roberta‟s own fear, isolation and hate, but the fact

that Morrison even addresses the issue of Maggie‟s race is interesting because the girl‟s

pre-occupation with it parallel‟s the reader‟s. Maggie is the only character with a definite

skin color assigned to her, and even that is ambiguous, but her other physical attributes

are more significant. She is mute, deaf, bow-legged, and “represents a physical

difference, that unlike race and color, is not culturally constructed but has profound

cultural implications in terms of how she is treated by others” (Fultz, 23). She is hated in

regards to a true physical difference, not socially constructed difference, such as racial


        The very fact that Maggie is a deaf mute is significant because this places her

outside the realm of language. She is a transcendental signified in the sense that she has

no ability to think in regards to race, as a result of her physical incapabilities and because

race is subordinate to language – a socially constructed means of differentiating people.

Maggie does not think in these terms and therefore has no useful application for racial

identity, as Morrison is suggesting that neither does the reader. The old deaf mute is

perhaps the reader‟s only hope in constructing significant meaning from the story as she
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has the potential of forcing the reader to examine the reading process and the significance

of assigning race to the characters. Other wards the reader will become pre-occupied in

the process of extracting meaning from loose associations Morrison signifies with the

other characters in the story.

        Toni Morrison portrayed racial identity not by black and white, but as

insignificant to personal relationships and simply a means of differentiating people.

Other authors define their racial identity out of necessity however, such as Louise Erdrich

who paints a picture of a quickly fading Chippewa nation in her novel Tracks. The

people of the tribe are still around in the novel, but many of them die off from disease, as

do their customs and traditions as a result of assimilation. Erdrich defines the Chippewa

race in Tracks through the internal and external conflicts that plague the tribe and the

historical narrative framework of the novel.

        There seem to be two types of Chippewa left as the event of Tracks unfold – full

blood and mixed blood. While there is tension between these two groups and their way

of life – traditional and assimilationist, the true conflict at the heart of the novel, as one of

the narrators Nanapush recognizes, lies between the Native American tribe and the

forceful policy of the government, which serves as a catalyst in the shift of “the

Chippewa from a communal hunting and gathering organization to a capitalistic,

individualistic agricultural economy” (Peterson, 177). It is important to note the shift

from community to individual – from the „We‟ to the „I,‟ as observed in the narrative

shift in the first few paragraphs, because this is what now defines the Chippewa people.

While this shift certainly causes factions within the tribe, these inter-tribal divisions are

the direct result of each member‟s willingness to assimilate. Though some of the tribe,
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such as Nanapush and Fleur aggressively attempt to uphold traditional values, it

ultimately proves to be their downfall. Other characters such as Pauline Puyat, who

converted to Christianity, arguably benefits and gains power from shedding her past

identity in favor of seeing the world through white eyes. Regardless of these differences

within the Chippewa nation, it is impossible to define their identity at this point in the

people‟s history without regards to the effect of the white man and his forceful

assimilationist government policy. It affects who they become, how they live, and how

they recall their history.

        The structure of the novel is extremely important in the identification of the

Chippewa in regards to the way that history is told. The reader faces the problem of a

dual narration – the events of each chapter unfold through the eyes of alternating

narrators, the traditional mater orator Nanapush in the odd numbered chapters, and the

converted Christian, often unreliable Paula Puyat in the even numbered chapters.

Operating on the principal that “history is a text of competing and conflicting

representations and meanings,” we are torn between the two conflicting ideologies that

each narrator represents, and ultimately two conflicting representations of the Chippewa

nation (Peterson, 175). Paula Puyat‟s account of the events in Tracks is a bit unreliable,

as her goal narrating the story is to gain power, despite the fact that it “travels in the

bloodlines, handed out before birth” (Erdrich, 31). But perhaps by shedding her Native

American identity and the alienation it causes her amongst her own people and the

Catholics in town, she can become more powerful through an assimilationist perspective,

telling the story from a textual standpoint. Nanapush‟s version of Tracks is told from an

oral historical account however. The is representative of the old, traditional Chippewa,
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since time is not viewed as linear and it is assumed that a great deal of information is

already known by the reader – no specific dates are mentioned and no formal introduction

is made by Nanapush in the first chapter. Perhaps the only commonality that the two

“conflicting stories and visions, [which] reflect a tribal vision of the world that allows for

competing truths,” is that Anglo-Americans have a profound effect on the construction of

the identity of the Chippewa (Peterson, 179). Neither account is wrong and both

certainly have their merits.

          While Louise Erdrich writes to preserve the heritage of a dying cultural identity,

other contemporary American authors, most notably Asian-American writers, compose

with the intent of etching a spot in the American literary canon. It is often times typical

of contemporary Asian-American writers to desire to “completely divorce themselves

from their ethnic identity” in favor of being viewed as simply American, but these

authors oftentimes remain fixated on their heritage (Kyhan, 348). Regardless of whether

or not these authors wish to drop the Asian moniker from their identity, the multicultural

heritage of Asian-American writers was altogether un-represented prior to 1945. Thus,

much of this work attempts to make Asian-American writers known in the American

literary canon, such as the poetry of Cathy Song, a third generation Korean-American


          Cathy Song constructs racial identity in her poetry by drastically stereotyping

Asian-American culture and attempting to preserve knowledge of her heritage by

recalling the tales of her first-generation ancestors. Perhaps this desire to preserve

ancestral history is an attempt “to better deal with [her] agonizing ambivalence towards

[her] hybrid identity” (Kyhan, 349). And this hybrid identity is the source of much strife
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for a woman who claims to be simply “a poet who happens to be Asian-American”

(Kyhan, 348). This is particularly evident through “her unabashed and unapologetic use

of colloquialism and Asian-American centered images” in poems such as “Chinatown”

and “Lost Sister” (Kyhan, 349). While it seems as though the identity that Song wishes

to construct in her poetry is one that is not explicitly American, nor explicitly Asian, but

rather a hybrid of the two, racial identity in Song‟s is ultimately shaped by her pre-

occupations with the Asian immigrant experience in America.

       The construction of racial identity in literature is too often defined in euro-centric

terms. To define identity in terms of these binary opposites – Anglo-American and the

other, authors such as Cathy song and Louise Erdrich illustrate the effects of the multi-

cultural experience on certain ethnicities. Toni Morrison attempts to deconstruct these

binary opposites with the intent of proving its insignificance in matters of personal

relationships. With the construction of racial identity on the basis of ethno-centrism,

contemporary American literature will sustain the trend of a literary canon that consists

of a melting pot of ethnicities.
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