The Longest Memory

by

Fred D’Aguiar

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The Longest Memory: Chapter 1: Whitechapel Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Whitechapel describes the morning after he decided to abandon his identity. Instead of staying up all night as he is used to, listening to others sleep—hearing their nightmares, their unconscious expressions of pain and fear, their physical reactions to the memory of violence, and, sometimes, listening to the very moment of their death—he can now accept that he is nothing more than a body and go back to bed. Before, he used to suffer from agonizing, worry-filled nights that caused him to get up before everyone else instead of sleeping peacefully.
Whitechapel’s description of slaves’ sleep emphasizes the emotional and physical pain they are in, as their sleep is constantly interrupted by fear and anguish. This description also shows that Whitechapel is highly aware of the pain slavery inflicts on himself and on others, but it seems that he now wants to stuff those feelings down for the sake of being nothing more than a body. As his worrying shows, his obedience toward his master did not keep him from reflecting on how best to protect himself and, perhaps, the community around him.
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Whitechapel recalls hearing other people die in their sleep and, in particular, the moment of their last breath. Even though slaves often talk of death as their salvation, people’s last breath is not a moment of relief but of panic—the body’s automatic and surprised reaction to death’s arrival. Whitechapel reflects on these reactions and concludes that he should die, because he has seen too much to continue living. Sometimes, he does not remember whether what he has seen was reality or a dream.
Slaves’ association of death with salvation—a liberation that is both physical and spiritual—highlights the utter lack of freedom that they have in life, as they have lost all hope in obtaining freedom while alive. Their painful deaths also show that death does not actually bring justice. Rather, death highlights a deep injustice: the lack of care and respect with which slaves’ bodies are treated.
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Whitechapel recalls his son’s whipping, noting that despite the intense agony he felt from seeing his son beaten so brutally, he would have been punished for looking away. In that moment, his eyes became void, watching the scene blindly, trying to avoid confronting the horror of what was happening.
Chapel’s whipping is doubly cruel. It is meant not only to harm the young boy physically, but also to destroy all the observers emotionally, as they are forced to witness the torture inflicted on another human being. Whitechapel’s effort to stop seeing and feeling is all he can to do keep from going crazy.
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After half of the allotted two hundred lashes, Whitechapel’s son is already gone. After each lash, his body immediately tenses to prepare for the next one, but sometimes he doesn’t succeed in doing so fast enough and can’t protect himself from the violence of the next lash. Whitechapel, watching this scene, learns to become numb to all pain, giving up on his powers of perception in the same way that his son’s body gradually abandons itself to the unrelenting whip.
Whitechapel’s aligns himself with his son physically, as he essentially takes on the pain that his son is feeling—a pain that later transforms into the numbness of death. Later, Whitechapel will also align himself with his son mentally and emotionally, realizing that his son’s rebellion might have been warranted, despite what the Whitechapel has believed all his life about the value of being loyal and obedient to one’s master.
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In a dangerous act of protest that could get them punished, Whitechapel and the other slaves beg the overseer (later revealed as Sanders Junior) to spare Whitechapel’s son from more lashes. However, the boy is always able to answer to his name (Chapel) when it is called, which the authority figures interpret as a sign of vitality, sufficient to pursue the punishment. Therefore, the whip continues to dig into the boy’s flesh and blood. By the end of the two hundred lashes, the boy’s eyes are empty. Ever since he stopped calling out “father” during the beating, realizing that Whitechapel is held down and thus cannot help him, the boy has been gone, his mind seemingly separated from his wounded body.
Throughout this chapter, Chapel is never referred to by his own name but, rather, is simply called “the boy” or “my son.” This emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of slavery, as it turns slaves into anonymous bodies, forced to surrender their lives to cruel authorities. This, coupled with Chapel’s desperate calls to his father, also highlights the vital family bonds that exist between slaves, as they must depend on each other for love, care, and survival itself.
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Before closing his son’s lifeless eyes and realizing that, from that moment onward, he would adopt the exact same empty look, Whitechapel applies balm to his son’s back. As he does so, Whitechapel cries frantically and apologizes to his son for what has happened. When he sees his son recoil in pain at his touch, Whitechapel explains that his hand is not the whip. His son nods to these words but becomes increasingly quiet and eventually ceases to nod or answer to his own name. That marks the moment in which Whitechapel decides to abandon his name, in order to match the empty look on his son’s face.
Chapel’s confusion between Whitechapel’s hand and the whip is symbolic. On a physical level, it is completely understandable, since Chapel’s back is raw and extremely sensitive to any kind of touch. However, it also represents Whitechapel’s participation in the system of slavery that has wounded his son. As will be explained later on, Whitechapel’s opposition to his son’s rebellion made him an oppressor. By affirming that his hand is not the whip, Whitechapel reveals his new effort to distinguish himself from authority and obedience, now knowing that collaborating with the master does not necessarily bring justice and protection.
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At the plantation, people call Whitechapel “Sour face” because of the deep worry lines on his face. He was unaware that the difficulty of living was being etched onto his face until he looked at himself in the mirror one day and realized that people were right in giving him that nickname. Now, he doesn’t even remember what it feels like to smile or laugh. Instead, he thinks laughing is like a donkey braying, and that he will never be capable of such an action ever again. He concludes that he has made his life overly difficult and long by worrying constantly.
Whitechapel’s somber reflection on his life highlights the lack of joy and emotional freedom that he has felt throughout his life. His regrets about worrying too much reflect the fact that he cannot rely on anyone besides himself for protection, and that he must constantly be on his guard (and “worry”) to survive on the plantation. Even though he’s recently committed himself to being nothing but a slave, it’s clear that his trust in the system is frail, and he does not fully believe his master or other authorities have his personal interests at heart.
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After witnessing the death of two wives and most of his children, Whitechapel is now surrounded by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They mostly leave him alone, merely checking whether he is still alive every morning. Once, Whitechapel’s grandson ran into him when turning a corner, accidentally knocking him to the ground in the process of running away from a man with a stick. The man who was following the child also beat Whitechapel for delaying him. Since then, Whitechapel has learned to walk far from corners.
Whitechapel’s experience with loss and suffering does not begin with Chapel—a fact that emphasizes the uniqueness of Chapel’s death which, unlike the previous ones, is so blatantly unfair that it forces Whitechapel to reexamine his entire life. Before this event, Whitechapel’s ordinary reaction to injustice (for example, here, submissively accepting a beating even though he didn’t do anything wrong) is not rebellion but, rather, a pragmatic attitude to avoid future harm.
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Sometimes, Whitechapel feels suddenly dizzy and has to sit down. This has led his great grandchildren to call him “Sit-down Grandfather,” which he prefers to “Sour-face.” In such moments, his grandchildren run toward him in alarm, but he waves them off, and they laugh like donkeys. Whitechapel, who cannot laugh, wonders at how easily they give in to pleasure. While he might have laughed with his first wife and their children, there is absolutely no trace of laughter in his face anymore. His eyes and mouth warn people about the suffering he has gone through, urging them to stay away from him, since his depressed attitude could be contagious.
Whitechapel feels alienated from his grandchildren, but they are all still committed to protecting and caring for each other, emphasizing that family bonds are crucial. Whitechapel’s solitude and sadness suggests that his focus on obedience throughout his life has perhaps kept him from empathizing with the community around him. In his concern for mere physical survival, he has isolated himself from their sorrows, hopes, and pleasures—the ordinary elements of a full life.
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Because of the misery of his life, Whitechapel now looks forward to his death. He recalls the death of his second wife (later revealed as Cook), which dragged on for weeks. Chapel held her, hiding his tears. Cook’s final words were for Whitechapel, telling him to join her soon. The next morning, after Cook’s death, Chapel ran away but was caught in the evening. Now, Whitechapel does not want to die because he imagines his wife’s anger at seeing their son arrive before him, which Whitechapel considers his fault. Believing that he should be punished for his actions, Whitechapel thinks that his grandson who ran into him did so to escape from the stick, but also to take revenge for Chapel’s death.
Whitechapel’s guilt over betraying his son and thus participating in his death reveals itself through family ties: his anticipation of his wife’s anger and his interpretation of his grandchild’s behavior as spite. Whitechapel’s conception of justice is entirely tied to the family—specifically, to the need to protect one’s family members from the outside world. Despite his apparent trust in his master, the only people whose opinions Whitechapel actually trusts and cares about are his own family members, whom he feels accountable to.
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Whitechapel attempts to justify his participation in Chapel’s death. He explains that his son needed to be reminded that he was only a slave and, therefore, needed to be punished to deter him from running away again. Whitechapel criticizes slaves’ belief that successful runaways go to paradise, arguing instead that the only paradise they go to exists in death, since the likelihood of being killed for running away is so high. He knows that his son considered such views cowardly, believing instead that paradise could be found on earth, and that his son would need to learn a lesson to be discouraged from trying to escape.
Whitechapel’s life philosophy revolves around the body—specifically, the need to protect oneself from death. This explains why Whitechapel does not see paradise as freedom, like Chapel does. Instead, Whitechapel sees paradise as death, since running away—the principal way to try to achieve freedom during one’s lifetime—is likely to just result in death anyway. Later, Whitechapel will realize that his refusal to value intellectual and spiritual freedom is oppressive.
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Unlike his son, Whitechapel trusts that a slave can live a long life and receive respect and fairness from his master if he works hard and does not rebel. Whitechapel uses the example of the many dynamic, admirable young people he has seen run away and die over the years to conclude that running away is suicidal and foolish.
Whitechapel’s rigid categorization of people as slaves suggests that he accepts the racist ideology that blacks are somehow meant to be slaves.  His philosophy, then, is based on racist ideas of blacks’ inferiority as much as on the necessity for self-protection.
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In the days leading up to Chapel’s escape, Whitechapel is distracted from his son’s desire to run away by Cook’s slow death. When the master (Mr. Whitechapel) allows Whitechapel to tend to his wife instead of working, he concludes that his hard work at the plantation has paid off, as his master is showing consideration for him. The master, though, does not want to pay for a physician to come, convincing Whitechapel instead that this is his wife’s time to die. Whitechapel thus takes care of his wife, which is exhausting. When she finally dies, the couple’s son runs away. To keep his son from joining his mother in paradise—more specifically, to keep the search party from killing him—Whitechapel knows he has to do something.
Whitechapel’s decision to interpret his master’s words as fair overlooks the master’s apparent lack of concern for Cook’s health. The master’s reluctance to call a physician only highlights his self-interested attitude, as he cares less about his slaves’ well-being than about saving money. The master lacks any medical expertise to assert that Whitechapel’s wife cannot be saved, but passively accepts her death as though it were an ordinary occurrence. Meanwhile, Whitechapel’s desire to act reflects the importance he attributes to family bonds and to his son’s life.
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Whitechapel explains that there are two types of slaves. The first kind only learns from experience. Such slaves believe that they are born free and should not be slaves, which causes them to rebel and get into trouble. The second kind learns through observation, realizing that behaving well and working hard brings relative fairness from authority, is better for the community, and leads to a longer life. Whitechapel knew that Chapel belonged to the first category, and that Whitechapel would have to work on his son’s behalf to keep him from dying at the trackers’ hands.
Whitechapel’s belief that obedience is the only behavior a slave should exhibit is not motivated by a desire to oppress others but, rather, by illusory trust in the system of slavery, which he considers capable of fairness and of rewarding hard-working slaves. When this assumption proves wrong, after Chapel’s death, Whitechapel’s entire belief system breaks down. Like the “first category” slaves he criticizes, Whitechapel ultimately learns through experience that slavery will never protect him or his family, and that obedience can be just as dangerous as rebellion.
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To save Chapel, Whitechapel decides to talk to his master, Mr. Whitechapel, and negotiate his son’s fair treatment in exchange for information about his son’s whereabouts. Whitechapel walks up to the master’s house, which surprises and annoys Mr. Whitechapel. Whitechapel apologizes for showing up at his house and begins to talk about his son, but Mr. Whitechapel interrupts him, asking what he should possibly do with a rebellious runaway who would only corrupt his other slaves. Whitechapel argues that his proposed solution would discipline his son and ensure future peace and submissiveness.
Mr. Whitechapel’s irritation at Whitechapel’s presence is a bad omen, suggesting that Whitechapel’s trust in his master is unmerited, since Mr. Whitechapel does not treat his slave with respect. Mr. Whitechapel’s reaction to Chapel’s escape shows that he is self-interested—he doesn’t care about Whitechapel’s feelings or Chapel’s life. This interaction only highlights the gap in rights, power, and interests between the slave and his master.
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Whitechapel then looks up to Mr. Whitechapel for the first time in their conversation and begs him to keep the search party from killing Chapel. The master merely says that Chapel is now in God’s hands, and that Whitechapel should accept God’s fair judgment. When Whitechapel attempts to continue speaking, Mr. Whitechapel interrupts him twice, increasingly angry at the slave’s defiance of his judgment.
The fact that Whitechapel has kept his head bowed for this entire time serves as a tangible reminder of the power dynamics at play, as it reaffirms Mr. Whitechapel’s dominance over the slave. It highlights Whitechapel’s willingness to obey codes of subservience, but also suggests that he knows how to adopt an external display of submissiveness in order to keep his master from dismissing his potentially rebellious ideas.
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Whitechapel then reveals that he knows where Chapel is hiding. Surprised and furious at seeing his slave hold such power over him, Mr. Whitechapel interrogates him angrily, but Whitechapel only says a few vague words about his son’s search for a place called paradise on earth. Exasperated, Mr. Whitechapel reprimands his slave by calling him directly by his name, “Whitechapel,” which is the worst possible disapproval. Whitechapel reveals that his son has taken the river path, opposite the search party’s direction. Mr. Whitechapel assures Whitechapel that Chapel will not be harmed, because he wants to give him an exemplary punishment.
Mr. Whitechapel’s exasperation demonstrates that he has no desire to treat Whitechapel fairly but, rather, simply wants to affirm his dominance over his slaves, and that their relationship of respect can breakdown any time Whitechapel oversteps his boundaries. Whitechapel’s revelation of his son’s whereabouts before Mr. Whitechapel promises to protect his son’s life shows the slave’s weakness before his master’s authority. Despite Whitechapel’s efforts to negotiate shrewdly, he ultimately gives in to fear and the need to obey.
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While Whitechapel feels relieved, realizing that this was the most he could hope for, the slaves in the house look at him angrily, as though he were sacrificing his son’s life. Whitechapel leaves Mr. Whitechapel’s house with relief, believing that the domestic slaves, who are affected by the master’s every mood, are as angry at him for upsetting their master as they are for Whitechapel betraying his son.
Whitechapel’s satisfaction at his master’s promise shows how little power he has over Chapel’s life. Even though Mr. Whitechapel has said nothing about what specific punishment he will inflict on the young boy, Whitechapel chooses to believe that it will be fair.
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Whitechapel spends the rest of the day waiting eagerly for any sign of his son. Mr. Whitechapel, who initially delayed his trip to the North, ultimately decides that he cannot wait anymore and tells the deputy that once Chapel is captured he should be locked up until Mr. Whitechapel returns. At hearing this order, Whitechapel feels a surge of fear, which he does not understand since this is not the first time his master has left the plantation and had his orders obeyed. After night has fallen, Whitechapel finally hears the sound of the search party’s dogs entering the plantation, carrying his son. The boy refuses to look at his father, knowing that Whitechapel has betrayed him.
Whitechapel’s betrayal of his son does not reflect his indifference toward his son’s fate but, rather, an extremely rigid belief in the necessity to punish rebellion. Whitechapel’s eagerness to see his son reveals that he does care deeply about Chapel, but that this love expresses itself through discipline. By contrast, Chapel’s visible anger suggests that, for the young boy, love should allow family members to make their own decisions, not force them to obey strict rules.
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Seeing his son dragged into the plantation, Whitechapel trusts that he is the only person capable of saving Chapel from what he considers to be Chapel’s absurd ideals, such as believing that his children will be born free. Whitechapel believes that he has already saved his son by going to see the master, who dominates over every living thing on the plantation and therefore ensures that his orders are obeyed. However, when Whitechapel subsequently doesn't see the deputy anywhere on the plantation, he begins to panic. The overseer, Sanders Junior, tells Whitechapel that the deputy is never at the plantation at night. Whitechapel realizes that the deputy must regularly sneak off the plantation at night to join his wife, in defiance of his function and of Mr. Whitechapel’s orders.
Whitechapel’s belief in his own power proves mistaken. It transposes a relationship of direct power between father and son within the family realm into real life, where Whitechapel’s family ties matter little in light of the relationship of subordination that all slaves must demonstrate toward plantation authorities, who are capable of determining whether they live or die. Whitechapel’s panic creates suspense and a sense of impending doom, as his trust in order and justice begins to fall apart.
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Despite the danger of contradicting Sanders Junior’s desire, Whitechapel tells him that he and four other witnesses can attest to hearing the master’s orders to lock Chapel up until Mr. Whitechapel’s return. Sanders Junior threatens to whip him if he keeps on speaking, but, intent on protecting his son, Whitechapel ignores him and keeps on relating the master’s orders.  Sanders Junior then hits him in the face. Remembering that Sanders Junior’s father, Sanders Senior, who was the overseer thirty years ago, had hit him in a similar way and had then been punished for it, Whitechapel believes that he can receive such justice again.
Despite Whitechapel’s usual display of obedience, his awareness that this is a life-and-death situation makes him resist authority, proving that his love for his son will always lead him to try to protect his life at all costs. This shows that Whitechapel never intended to put his son’s life in danger, but was simply moved by past experience, which has caused him to trust in his master’s fairness. Sanders Junior’s behavior toward Whitechapel reveals his disdain for slaves and his belief that violence is necessary to enforce authority.
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Angry at Sanders Junior’s action, Whitechapel’s son tries to attack the overseer but is restrained by the men in the search party and is too weak to fight back. Ashamed at what he has done, Sanders Junior apologizes meekly but tells Whitechapel he deserved it. However, he becomes enraged at hearing the master’s orders, which Whitechapel relates again. Sanders Junior believes that the boy should be punished so that he can set an example for slaves’ future behavior. Sanders adds that he will accept no orders from a slave and a “nigger.”
Chapel’s anger at the violence against his father shows that his sense of betrayal is not as strong as the deep-rooted loyalty and love he feels for Whitechapel. Sanders Junior’s apology reveals that he does have at least minimal respect for Whitechapel—but that this respect is marred by a belief in slaves’ inferiority. The overseer’s ultimate decision shows that slavery can arouse feelings of dominance, encouraging even a simple overseer to defy his superior’s orders in an attempt to assert his white supremacy.
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Panicked, Whitechapel sends a slave to look for the deputy, despite the fatal danger for slaves to be found off the plantation at night. Chapel calls out for Cook (who died the previous day), and Whitechapel begs the Sanders Junior to whip him in Chapel’s place, saying that his son is all he has. Sanders Junior just laughs and orders two hundred lashes. The announcement of this punishment arouses incredulity and indignation in the crowd, and Sanders’s colleagues have to hold Whitechapel back forcefully and put him on his knees to keep him from intervening. When the whipping begins, Whitechapel cries out for his son. The other slaves also cry for him, begging for the punishment to stop.
Sanders Junior’s decision shows that justice follows no set rules, but remains bound to the whim of cruel authorities on the plantation. Whitechapel’s physical restraint mirrors his intellectual subordination to slavery, as his own freedom of thought has been constrained by his acceptance of his inferior status as a slave. By the time he becomes aware of his mistake, it is too late, and all he can do is express pain at his own powerlessness. Chapel’s call for his mother highlights that he is too young and innocent to be put to death.
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Now, Whitechapel realizes that he was given neither mercy nor respect. He realizes that he wanted Chapel to be by his side when he eventually died, just as he and Chapel were by Cook’s side when she died. This desire is what ultimately killed Chapel. Now, as a form of self-punishment, Whitechapel accepts to be nothing more than an ordinary slave. He works hard to forget all his memories. Whitechapel wonders if, throughout his life, he has been an oppressor to his fellow slaves—a slave who has become so used to slavery that he has enforced slavery on himself and his family, trusting that there can be no freedom in life and that paradise only exists in death. Realizing he has outlived all his loved ones and cannot even respect himself anymore, he only hopes to die.
Without the possibility of justice, Whitechapel’s obedient life loses all meaning. Instead of being rewarded for his hard work and submission, he is punished just as cruelly as any other slave. While Whitechapel believed he was sacrificing his freedom in the name of a worthy goal (namely, the protection of his family members and himself), he has in fact given up his independence to a system that now proves to be senseless and unfair. His acceptance of slavery isolates him, allowing him neither to join the ranks of his white superiors nor to belong to the community of slaves who feel that he has betrayed his son. Whitechapel thus has nothing—and no one—left to live for.
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