Sanders Junior engages in an imaginary dialogue with Whitechapel, who is now dead. He is surprised to realize that Whitechapel is actually dead and notes that he now looks peaceful, as though he were taking a nap. Sanders admits that he liked Whitechapel, and that he should not have hit him, but he argues that he was merely defending his position as overseer and his authority over the slaves.
Sanders Junior’s imaginary dialogue with Whitechapel reveals a desire to explain himself to the old man and, perhaps, receive his pardon. While the overseer knows that he misbehaved in hitting Whitechapel, he is still incapable of articulating an unconditional apology, as he again tries to defend himself by invoking his professional duty.
Sanders Junior explains that he could never have hit Whitechapel hard, because he learned his entire trade from the knowledgeable slave, whom he considers a better overseer than him. Although he feels sorry for Whitechapel’s son, Sanders adamantly rejects the idea that he and Chapel are brothers, since Sanders only knew him as the son of a slave. He complains about Chapel’s constant questioning and insubordination and realizes now that Chapel’s attitude can be understood by the fact that he wasn’t actually Whitechapel’s son.
Sanders Junior’s confession that Whitechapel was a better overseer than him suggests that Whitechapel cannot be considered inferior to him in any way, despite their nominal inequality on the plantation. It also highlights how Whitechapel believed deeply in obedience and tried to impose his views on his fellow slaves to keep them in line (and thus keep them safe). However, this knowledge of slaves’ intellectual capacities does not lead the overseer to understand that slaves might desire freedom, and his condemnation of Chapel’s behavior reveals his ready acceptance of racist conceptions of personality.
Sanders Junior wonders why Whitechapel was not capable of keeping Chapel from running away and places the blame for what has happened on him. He also notes that Mr. Whitechapel himself had previously agreed that two hundred lashes would be an adequate punishment for a runaway. The overseer concludes that even if he had known that Chapel was his half-brother, he would have felt compelled to execute the punishment. He also argues that Mr. Whitechapel would likely have returned from his trip to order a similar punishment, though perhaps with fewer lashes.
Once again, the overseer’s inability to see slaves as fully human blinds him to their desire for freedom, which is equal to that of whites—but which he sees as unnatural behavior in a slave. His narrow focus on standard modes of punishment keeps him from reexamining the very concept of punishment itself in terms of violence and brutality. This prevents him from reflecting on the moral weight of his own actions.
Sanders Junior insists that slavery is a business, and that all the slaves’ lives belong to Mr. Whitechapel, which means that slaves should not rebel. He adds that he liked Whitechapel because he “knew his place.” Sanders recalls finding Whitechapel napping one day and being about to strike him with his stick to wake him up when Whitechapel suddenly blinked at him and walked away, fully awake. Now, though, despite his tricks, Whitechapel has finally been taken by death. Sanders reflects that, despite Whitechapel’s long life, he would never want to live as a slave, with no one by his side and no possessions of his own.
Sanders Junior’s long speech, filled with various excuses about why he punished Chapel in the way he did, reveals a nagging desire to absolve himself—which betrays an underlying sense of guilt and, perhaps, the knowledge that what he did was wrong and unjustifiable. The overseer’s only excuse for what he has done is to invoke slaves’ duty to obey, but this paradoxically places guilt on the very victims who suffered violence at his own hands.
Sanders Junior orders people to cover Whitechapel before moving his body and even gives his jacket for that purpose, realizing that he can only give it to him in death, because it would have been inappropriate otherwise. He apologizes to Whitechapel for unknowingly killing his half-brother, saying that Chapel turned out to be weaker than he thought. He merely wanted his punishment to be exemplary, he explains, and had not intended to kill him.
Now, Sanders Junior abandons his excuses and arguments, admitting directly that he did not mean to behave so cruelly—and, perhaps, that the family relationship between Chapel and him does mean something after all. His concern for Whitechapel’s dignity seems genuine, but it also reveals the overseer’s hypocrisy, as he was not courageous enough to reveal his admiration for the old slave while he was alive.
Sanders Junior reflects on his act of giving Whitechapel his jacket, which used to belong to his father, Sanders Senior. Sanders Junior concludes that he is just as severe as his father. At the same time, he considers that his father lacked Whitechapel’s courage, and that he would have been glad to have the old slave as his father. He says that Whitechapel deserves this jacket and makes sure that people keep him covered as they move him.
Despite his deep-seated racism, Sanders Junior is capable of self-examination and, even, of accepting a black slave as a father figure. The contradictions inherent in Sanders Junior’s words and actions show the difficulty, in such an intolerant, violence-filled society, of reconciling private feelings with public obligations marked by racism and the need to dominate over others.