Revisiting Recitatif View all 5 stories

Handle with Care

On invisible ink and archival imagination

Simone Browne
March 21, 2022

Among Toni Morrison’s papers held at Princeton University Library is a stash of materials related to her short story Recitatif. Typed drafts with handwritten annotations in blue pencil. Loose notes and early versions written with fountain pen on a legal pad. Miscellany, like a letter that reads, “Enclosed please find the draft of a story I wrote for Marlo Thomas and Cicely Tyson. From it (which they liked) I am doing a script.” An undated and worn manila folder that holds Morrison’s short on which she wrote, “Handle with care. These are the only copies. The world might hate you if you misplace them.”

In an interview with The Paris Review from 1993, Morrison called Recitatif “a lark” that instigates confusion in order to “provoke and enlighten” readers. What happens if readers are tasked with suspending their own (commonsensical) understandings of race and representation? As the story avoids familiar racial references, even while race remains integral for the story’s central characters—one Black and one white—readers begin to sense that race is not so easily knowable or categorizable. Yes, there might be some cues, things one might think of as invariably racially coded: One character went to see Jimi Hendrix in concert; the other emphatically states “I hated your hands in my hair”; in a particularly heated vignette, the women find themselves on opposites sides of school integration protests, one carrying a picket sign that reads “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO.” Yet, race is not so easily registered in Recitatif. Instead, this short story is an invitation to find what Morrison called the “invisible ink”—“what lies under, between, outside the lines,” obscured until the reader comes along to actively reorient themselves in order to co-create the story.

But the short story is not the whole story. Morrison’s archives contain a much longer, unpublished version. In these drafts, Recitatif is still the story of Roberta and Twyla, the “preacher lady’s daughter” and the girl whose mother sometimes left her “alone to go dancing all night,” who met as children in a shelter for wards of the state, where the other kids sometimes called them “salt and pepper.” But there is more, too: scenes between the women and their husbands; parentheticals signifying tone like “T: (Embarrassed and vengeful) How’s your mother?”; a “melancholy” train ride from New York City that the women took together, in secret, as adults. That Morrison preserved this extended version—along with drafts, marginalia, and other ephemera—for her archive not only means we can now sit with a map of her experimentation, creation, and revision; it also tells us that Morrison was intentional in the curation of her own archive. She anticipated the curious readers who would finish the published story and go looking for more invisible ink. The ones who would find in her Recitatif papers, again and again, the line “Black girls do not cry” and know that terrible feeling very deeply. Or the readers who would see the handwritten annotations describing pictures and visual details to be “interspersed throughout scenery,” and from this imagery could vividly imagine a theatrical storyboard. Morrison’s deliberate curation of the Recitatif papers teaches us that the act of assembling the archive is itself a mode of ongoing Black cultural production. Ongoing so that it could still yield more intellectual and creative outcomes. This is a gift. One that must be handled with care.

Simone Browne is a professor and author of the book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.