Letter 88

Synopsis of Letter 88

Nettie announces the return of Tashi and her mother, with Adam from the mbele camp to the Olinka village. Adam caught up with Tashi and her mother Catherine, and accompanied them to the rebel camp, where the three spent a short time before deciding to return to their home village. Adam wants to marry Tashi, and take her back to America, but she refuses as she believes that she will not be accepted there due to her tribal scars and her very black skin. She is aware that lighter skinned women are more admired and doubts Adam’s faithfulness. To prove his devotion and loyalty to Tashi, Adam has his own face marked with the same tribal scars and the couple are married, adopting the surname Omatangu, which is the name of the first Adam in Africa.

Immediately afterwards, the family leave to travel to the coast, having decided that they can do no more good for the Olinka tribe, so should move back to America.

Commentary on Letter 88

Walker brings the African narrative to a close with the return of Adam and Tashi from the mbele camp, which is situated in a remote valley many miles from the Olinka village and the young couple’s marriage. Remote from colonial interference, it seems an idealised community.

Throughout the novel there have been a number of allusions to African-American skin tones, with light skin signifying intelligence and cleanliness and black skin signifying negative characteristics such as ignorance and lack of personal hygiene. Dark-skinned Tashi is aware of this from Nettie’s American magazines, so she feels that she will be discriminated against if she marries Adam and returns to America with him. She also believes that her tribal scars will mark her as an ignorant savage.

In addressing this issue, Walker illustrates the problem of internalised racism, which occurs when people begin to believe the lies and stereotypes that others tell about them. For many African-Americans, light skin was (and still is, to an extent) valued over darker skin. Tashi sees advertisements for a cream to bleach black skin to a lighter colour. However, Olivia knows that the best way to combat internalised racism and feelings of inferiority is to stand together, regardless of skin tone, and love one another, which is a fundamental Christian belief. Adam shows his love for Tashi by having his own face cut, so he can stand alongside Tashi in solidarity as a ‘marked’ African. Adam’s adoption of the African name Omatangu also confirms him as a new Adam and unites his American and African identities.

In contrast to the noble sentiments displayed by Adam, it is rather an anti-climax when Nettie ends this letter with an abrupt account of the entire family packing up and leaving the Olinka village to find a ship to take them back to America immediately after the wedding ceremony.

Investigating Letter 88

  • Do some research of your own into internalised racism. You might like also to look back over the narrative to see how many examples you can find of African-American characters being preoccupied with skin colour or other issues connected with this belief.
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