Revisiting Recitatif View all 5 stories

Reading Otherwise

On kinship, racial pedagogy, and reading as revision

Claire Schwartz
March 21, 2022

They are only there because their mothers cannot be. Twyla tells the reader, “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick,” and Recitatif’s opening sentence thus explains how two girls—one Black, one white—find themselves sharing room 406 at St. Bonny’s. Separated from their mothers, the girls become intimate friends, huddling together in the orchard, speaking that inarticulable language of mutual confidence that emerges when you find someone with whom you can just sit on the ground and breathe. For the four months they spend together, Twyla and Roberta are each other’s closest kin.

But even in the mothers’ absence, the specter of their desires hovers, intermittently asserting itself in the girls’ relationship. Upon seeing that her roommate is a girl of “a whole other race,” Twyla turns to so-called Big Bozo and declares: “My mother wouldn’t like you putting me in here.” In this way, the girls’ bond is haunted by the racial pedagogy of the maternal—the quotidian curriculum by which the mothers instruct their daughters in the myth of the inextricable link between race and kin. So it’s no coincidence that it is when the girls become women who become mothers that the meanings of their racial difference are conjugated into diametric opposition. MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO—the slogan on Roberta’s sign, as she protests on one side or the other of school integration—is the articulation not of a shared position, but of the hoarding (or, depending on who’s who, the recognition of the hoarding) authorized by the rapacious custody of the white maternal.

“Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship,” Saidiya Hartman writes, naming anti-Black epistemologies as the persistent thread suturing social arrangements to the apportioning of care. It is often noted that the institution of slavery came with prohibitions on Black literacy; it worked on white literacy as well. In Specters of the Atlantic, Ian Baucom posits the novel as the genre that conditioned thought in line with the speculative finance system that underwrote the transatlantic slave trade. The novel, Baucom explains, honed the idea of “types” that tethered the present to a fixed set of futures—if a person is x, then they will be y—a mode of thinking required for the brutal calculations by which a person, kidnapped from their home, could be sold as a commodity in a place far away. The reading practice that corresponds to “types” is skimming—a process of extraction carried out in accordance with prefigured ideas about what one will find, and then fastening those findings to a limited set of meanings. Or, as Baucom puts it, the novel “altered the knowable by indexing it to the imaginable.”

Recitatif, which Morrison called “an experiment,” exposes the extractive practice of skimming—what often passes for ordinary reading—as itself a set of brutal experiments, racial propositions, and hypotheses that constrict meaning to marshal the present toward a fixed future. If Twyla says, “I hated your hands in my hair,” then she’s Black. If Twyla is Black, then when she shows up to counter the protest for which Roberta has written “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO,” then she is on the side of justice. But if she is Black, then would Twyla not recognize the blackness of Maggie, the “sandy[-]colored woman” who worked in the kitchen at St. Bonny’s, to whom she and Roberta had both been cruel? Perhaps, then, she is white. If so . . . This mode of reading sutures identity to meaning, the thens cleaving so closely to the ifs that they appear nearly simultaneous.

But Morrison clips what otherwise cleaves. “I wonder what made me think you were different,” the girls say to each other, one after another. It’s a tricky phrase, charting relation even as it leaves the relation it names suspended. Different from them, who are like you? Or different from me, who is unlike you? What can be imagined is loosed from what can be known; the indexical reading short circuits. The wondering, which is also a wandering, creates an eternal here whose path cannot be charted according to the usual coordinates. One gets lost for a while, which is also to say, one finds another way. The girls grow up and the recombinatory possibilities of room 406 grow distant. In the womens’ minds the errant meanderings of wondering increasingly resolve into thinking emplotted in a system of knowing: If you are x, then you must be y. But for the reader, the umbilical cord is cut, the relationship suspended—difference meaning, perhaps, differently. Though that depends on what you make of it. This is what Morrison does; she makes the reader work, which is to say, she makes the reader aware that they may already be working on behalf of whiteness and offers an invitation toward an otherwise. “Is it true,” Oprah asked Morrison after reading Beloved, “that sometimes people have to read over your work in order to understand it, to get the full meaning?” “That, my dear,” Morrison replied, “is called reading.”

The Talmud is a living record of reading. It is also a theory of reading: To read is to revise. Texts are sites of return, not because their certainty calcifies ways to be, but because their uncertainty is infinite, and to commune with that uncertainty is to enlarge the possibilities of becoming. In the world of modern finance capital, the future is speculative. When we read the Talmud, we recall that the past is speculative. When we skim, we extract meaning. When we read, we endow meaning; that is the logic of interpretation. In Hebrew, teacher (מורה) and parent (הורה) share a root; put differently, they are split at the root. In the absence of the mothers as the primary instructors of sociality, a space for mothering is opened up—and one answer to that space is readership. Bound by disagreement as much as consensus, in the kinship readership extends, likeness is not the prerequisite for belonging.

I bring the Talmud to this reading not because it belongs here, but because it is what I have to bring. The great possibility in tradition is not the smooth fiction of continuity but the jagged edge of unfinishedness, the infinite invitation to reread and thus revise, a way out from the real of the now: What, otherwise, might we mean for each other?

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents.