Letter 56

Synopsis of Letter 56

Nettie writes about her visit to New York before the family boards ship to travel to Africa. Nettie now feels like one of the family, continuing her studies as well as teaching Olivia and Adam.

She describes the black community who live in the Harlem area of New York City as people of dignity and deep faith, who are generous in contributing funds to help people whom they consider as their black brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.

This is in sharp contrast to the cold, unwelcoming manners she notices in the white members of the Missionary Society of New York. The Missionary Society is dominated by white members who do not seem to care about African people, only about the duty of white missionaries. All the pictures on the walls of the Mission Society are of nineteenth century white, male missionaries and explorers, who are represented as being superior to their black missionary colleagues. However, Nettie feels that the missionary work of people who share skin colour will be more effective, as well as achieving a common goal to improve the lives of black people everywhere.

Commentary on Letter 56 

The observations made by Nettie in this letter are quite wide-ranging. She considers the presentation of religion, including the way that Jesus and the disciples are presented as white in Bible illustrations, as quite the opposite of historical reality. She describes how white and black people are segregated in society, with a white traveller making an offensive remark about black missionaries on the journey to New York. This contrasts with the generosity of the black inhabitants of Harlem.

Although the comparisons are done without open comment, the effect is to make the reader aware of the different attitudes and behaviour of black and white people, illustrating the racial prejudice that existed in society at the time.

The description of the missionary society personnel, the pictures of white explorers and missionaries and the patronising attitudes expressed about black Africans as a ‘different species’ who should not be ‘coddled’, are the first indications that the family’s mission work may fail, later in the novel. At this point, however, Samuel is optimistic that because his family is not white, they will be able to work more effectively for the ‘uplift’ of all black people.

Investigating Letter 56

  • Do some research on the white subjects of the pictures in the Missionary Society
    • John Hanning Speke (1827-64)
    • David Livingstone (1813-73)
    • Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904)
  • Add some details to your character notes on Nettie, Corrine and Samuel
  • Do you think that racial prejudice is represented as entirely one-sided in the narrative so far?
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