Letter 44

Synopsis of Letter 44

Sofia gives Miss Millie driving lessons in her new car. As a reward, Miss Millie offers to drive Sofia to Odessa’s house to visit her children on Christmas Day. However, she will not allow Sofia to sit beside her in the front seat of the car, because it is not the custom in the South for white and coloured people to ride together.

When they reach Odessa’s house, Miss Millie cannot reverse the car out of Odessa’s yard, yet will not let Sofia sit in the front seat to help her find reverse gear. The car breaks down and Miss Millie refuses to accept a lift home in Odessa’s husband’s pickup truck. 

Eventually, Sofia has to escort Miss Millie home in the truck, get a mechanic to fix the car, then drive Miss Millie’s car back to the house. The promised visit to her children lasts for only fifteen minutes.

Commentary on Letter 44

Sofia has now served at least five years of her sentence as Miss Millie’s housemaid. The letter focuses on the intolerant attitude of white people and the contempt with which they are regarded by blacks as a result. There is humour in the fact that Miss Millie’s social discomfort about associating with blacks actually renders her more helpless and dependent.

Miss Millie’s incompetence illustrates Sofia’s belief that white people are inferior. Well-meaning but weak, and bound by a racial code, Miss Millie is ungenerous in making Sofia ride in the back, and narrow-minded when she will not accept a lift back in Odessa’s husband’s pickup truck. 

The convention of things that were ‘not done’ in the south was used to justify racist behaviour for centuries and Walker uses this episode to illustrate the hypocrisy and injustice that eventually gave rise to the civil rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century.

Investigating Letter 44

  • Since Letter 36, cars have been integrated into the story. On a sheet of A4, make two columns.
    • List the characters who drive cars in the left hand column and the cars they drive on the right.
    • What is the significance of each make and model and what does it reveal about its driver?
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