Whitechapel’s great granddaughter recalls the memory of Whitechapel washing her and complaining about New England lice being more aggressive than African lice. When she asks him about Africa, Whitechapel describes being taken from a field where he was playing and then sent on a long journey on a boat, during which many people died.
Whitechapel’s memories of Africa highlight the inherently violent nature of slavery, which forcefully uproots innocent people from their home to turn them into slaves—even though they were living innocent, free lives in their own land.
The great granddaughter enjoys Whitechapel’s washing sessions, because she thinks of him as “African Great Grandfather.” She tells him that she dreamed of Africa, which Whitechapel finds silly. However, the girl still recounts her dream, in which she reaches Africa, kneels, and kisses the soil, feeling that she belongs there. She then joins friends and family at a hut where food is cooking and everyone cheers when she eats, as they recognize that she is left-handed like her great grandfather.
The girl’s dream of Africa symbolizes her deep yearning for freedom and for a feeling of home, which life on the plantation deprives her of. Her dream also highlights the difficult position of black slaves, who have lost their homeland (except, perhaps, in dreams) but are also not accepted in the very land they were born in, leading to a sense of severed identity.
When the great granddaughter is done telling Whitechapel her dream, he tells her that she should not think of Africa. He tells her to dream about her life here and seems irritated by her story. He prefers to avoid thinking and talking about Africa to not breed disobedience on the plantation. He also insists that Africa is his own past, and that the other slaves, who have never experienced it, should not talk about it.
Whitechapel’s irritation at the mention of Africa mirrors his irritation at slaves’ yearning for freedom or “paradise.” Instead of projecting his hopes into the future, Whitechapel prefers to make his life in the present more livable—which, in his view, involves eliminating any desire for freedom and progress.
The great granddaughter recalls Whitechapel’s second marriage and the sadness that marked his face after his wife, Cook, died. Since Chapel’s death, he has empty eyes and everyone avoids him because the old man was responsible for his son’s death. They know this because when Chapel escaped, the slaves got together to decide what to do. Whitechapel said he wanted to talk to Mr. Whitechapel, and people thought he had gone crazy. However, he argued that he knew what to do, and that they should just trust him. During the whipping, everyone noted Whitechapel’s own surprise, as though he hadn’t planned for this to happen. His great granddaughter saw the old man’s body react to the whipping in the same way as his son’s and knew there was nothing she could do for him.
Whitechapel’s visible surprise at seeing his son whipped reveals the extent to which he actually trusted in the overseer and the master’s fairness, and the fact that he never meant to cause his son any harm—even though the other slaves on the plantation distrusted the master and knew that betraying Chapel might lead to his death. While Chapel underwent physical suffering, Whitechapel underwent the spiritual disillusionment, which caused him to lose all hope in life. Whitechapel’s suffering also reveals how strong his bond with Chapel was, since his physical pain mirrored his son’s.
Instead of dreams about Africa, the great granddaughter now has nightmares of beatings. She wonders if there is a way anyone could have convinced Whitechapel that Chapel would be safe but decides not to interrogate him about it. Finally, one day, she finds Whitechapel’s curled-up, dead body and begins to wash him, like he used to wash her. Overcome by sadness, she then finds herself unable to continue washing Whitechapel and must be replaced.
Despite the girl’s awareness of Whitechapel’s mistakes, her love for him remains strong and her inability to continue washing him reveals her pain at seeing him dead. Her decision to keep from interrogating Whitechapel also reveals her respect for him, as she was curious about what happened but realized her question would only cause the old man more pain.