Paul D recalls his time working on a chain gang in Georgia: he is chained together to 45 other men who work all day and sleep in wooden boxes like cages. They never speak to each other, but somehow can understand each other by the looks in their eyes.
Paul D’s experience on the chain gang is an example of the cruelty of slavery and also a symbolic microcosm of the institution of slavery: like the members of a chain gang, slaves are held together in bondage, but this shared oppression creates a strong community out of their shared suffering.
As the chain gang work, they sing to make it bearable. They sing in words their masters cannot understand. Often, men want to run or simply give up and go crazy, but they don’t because they are all chained together and rely on each other.
Again, the chain gang illustrates the importance of community in dealing with the horrors of slavery. Through singing, the prisoners express themselves in a way that their masters cannot understand, finding a small area of experience outside of their masters’ control.
One day, a huge rain storm begins. The chain gang has to stop working. As the rain continues, the ground floods and dirt turns to mud. Someone yanks the chain and Paul D falls to the ground. Somehow, all the prisoners understand. They dive through the mud and are able to crawl under the fence enclosing the area where they are kept. They escape to a nearby forest and hide there. In the forest, they come across a camp of sick Cherokee.
It is only by cooperating together that the prisoners are able to escape their bondage, just as slaves must rely on each other and the help of benevolent strangers (for example, Amy) in order to find freedom. And yet, to escape, they also must slog through suffocating mud. This escape might be seen as metaphor for Paul D and Sethe's attempted escape from their haunting pasts—that they must dive through it together in order to free themselves.
The Cherokee bring out axes and cut the prisoners’ chains. The slaves gradually leave, until Paul D is the last one left. He goes north and doesn’t stop until he gets to Delaware. There, he finds “the weaver lady” with whom he stays. He reflects that it took him a long time to put this painful past away in the tobacco tin, so that “nothing in this world could pry it open.”
The Cherokee are a people as abused and disenfranchised as the slaves. Once free, Paul D does not know where to go, except generally north. He is free, but without a home. After his painful experiences, Paul D had to put the past behind him and repress his memories in order to survive.