The Longest Memory

by

Fred D’Aguiar

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The Longest Memory: Chapter 6: Plantation Owners Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Whitechapel prepares to meet his fellow plantation owners, whom he knows will ridicule him. He feels conflicted, torn in half by contradictory thoughts. He remembers that his father helped to build the plantation owners’ club but feels that he does not personally belong there. On the way, he wonders if he should drive back home. These acquaintances, he notes, believe that he’s deserving of their insults. Mr. Whitechapel wonders if they truly are all the company he has.
Initially, it remains ambiguous why Mr. Whitechapel feels that he is going to be ridiculed, although it is likely that it has something to do with Chapel’s death. Mr. Whitechapel’s feelings of isolation show that he, too, is vulnerable in some ways, despite his all-powerful attitude on the plantation. In this sense, his domination over his slaves does not reflect the actual power he holds in society at large.
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When Mr. Whitechapel’s carriage approaches the building, the plantation owners are amused and wonder why Mr. Whitechapel would choose to drive it himself in the rain when he owns hundreds of slaves. However, they decide to tone their mockery down, reminding themselves that he is still one of them. Mr. Whitechapel, though, does not understand why he decided to attend the gathering, and wonders if he is seeking answers that he needs others to say out loud.
Once again, Mr. Whitechapel’s worries remain unspecified, building mystery and suspense. The men’s mockery of Mr. Whitechapel’s desire to drive his own carriage highlights the master’s hypocritical attitude toward slavery, which combines oppression of hundreds of slaves with an attitude of moral uprightness and independence.
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When Mr. Whitechapel enters the building, trying to convince himself that this is his home because his father has helped build the club, the plantation owners take turns mockingly congratulating him for whipping Chapel to death. A long, heated debate ensues about the men’s differing visions of slavery. Mr. Whitechapel tries to defend himself by saying that it was an involuntary consequence of fair punishment. Despite feeling physically uncomfortable in the room, he tries to remain calm and engage with his peers.
Surprisingly, Mr. Whitechapel’s fears of mockery were unrelated to the possibility of being condemned for whipping a slave to death. Instead, he feared the opposite attitude: the men’s excitement at seeing that Mr. Whitechapel has finally behaved in a brutal way. Instead of fearing higher justice, Mr. Whitechapel was thus fearing nothing less than base social pressures, which turn traditional notions justice on their head.
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Meanwhile, the other plantation owners mock Mr. Whitechapel for being a hypocrite, emphasizing that Chapel’s death proves that Mr. Whitechapel’s beliefs about slaves’ humanity and right to respect are illusory. Mr. Whitechapel counters that he still trusts in his principles, and that one slave’s accidental death does not make him as brutal as them. His friends nevertheless keep on deriding him, nothing ironically that he treats his slaves well only until he decides to kill them. They complain about his attitude of superiority toward them and try to make him admit that whipping that slave finally made him feel alive.
Although it is true that Mr. Whitechapel did not intend to kill Chapel, the plantation owners are also correct in recognizing Mr. Whitechapel’s hypocrisy. Indeed, Mr. Whitechapel refuses to accept that treating slaves with respect, as he claims to do, does not actually protect them from violence, such as the punishment Chapel suffered at the hands of the overseer.
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Mr. Whitechapel feels that half of him joins in the plantation owners’ collective merriment, while another half feels deeply troubled by what is being said. Someone calls him an Abolitionist, and Mr. Whitechapel worries momentarily about what he considers to be the men’s intellectual inferiority and, therefore, potential danger. When Mr. Whitechapel defends his Christian beliefs, the men accuse him of protecting Africans instead of showing solidarity to his fellow white Christians. Mr. Whitechapel argues that he does not consider his involvement in slavery and his Christian beliefs incompatible. The men argue, though, that Mr. Whitechapel’s overly generous treatment of his slaves will only breed rebellion and an erroneous belief in racial equality. The atmosphere becomes darker, tense, and deprived of laughter, as the discussion becomes more intense.
Mr. Whitechapel’s desire to fit in proves just as powerful as his desire to defend his principles. His conflicted attitude symbolizes the way in which racism and cruelty can become predominant in society. If standing up to racist injustice is dangerous, people will be inclined to conform to racist standards of behavior. The very threat of being an outsider in society can be sufficient to make people abide by the status quo. The men’s heated, potentially violent arguments only emphasize what is at stake in this conversation: their sense of moral worth but, more importantly, their very livelihood, which depends entirely on slave labor.
Themes
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When Mr. Whitechapel takes a moment to think of Chapel to himself, he realizes guiltily that, after this young boy’s death—whom he once beat with a belt as if Chapel were his own son—there can be no “judicious whip” on the plantation. Rather, punishment is always brutal.
In private, Mr. Whitechapel re-examines the very concept of physical punishment and concludes that whipping is always violent and morally unacceptable, even if it is accepted by society. However, this moment of introspection is only temporary, and Mr. Whitechapel would never dare to express such non-violent views in public.
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Mr. Whitechapel then resolves to tell the plantation owners about Chapel’s true identity in a mysterious way, starting a new discussion by claiming that whipping slaves leads to “brother killing brother.” Asking for their complete secrecy, and feeling dizzy with fear and confusion, he argues that God does not tell men to treat other men like animals. However, he finds his own words ridiculous, and almost laughs along with the other men at this argument. He even discusses the possibility of ending slavery, arguing that they could pay slaves to stay and work for them, but finds his own ideas worthy of mockery.
Mr. Whitechapel is unable to reconcile his moral instincts (the idea that men should not be treated like animals) with his own actions, in which he does sometimes treat slaves like animals on the plantation. His progressive ideas disagree so strongly with his self-interest that the only possible solution is for him to dismiss these ideas entirely.
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When the plantation owners mention the slave Whitechapel, Mr. Whitechapel resolves to finally tell these men the truth about Chapel more directly. However, they keep him from expressing his ideas fully, and they mockingly wonder whether a member of his family might have had sexual relations with a slave. At the same time, they are curious about what Mr. Whitechapel has to say. When Mr. Whitechapel finally reveals that Sanders Senior raped Whitechapel’s wife, Cook, who bore the very boy who was whipped to death, the men are incredulous at hearing this story. Mostly, they do not understand how Whitechapel could have let Sanders Junior whip his own half-brother to death. Mr. Whitechapel explains that Whitechapel simply refused to stand up to authority. The men conclude that this slave is truly extraordinary, saying that he deserves Mr. Whitechapel’s name, and that they wish they could buy him.
The men’s jokes about the possibility of interracial relationships highlight the very impossibility of such an event in their minds, which they consider absurd and laughable—an attitude that emphasizes their belief in separate, unequal races that should never interact. The men’s surprise and approval of Whitechapel’s passive behavior only highlights how extreme Whitechapel’s views about obedience are, for it is highly ironic that Whitechapel’s actions would be celebrated by the very men who advocate slavery, oppression, and cruelty. In this context, Whitechapel’s actions cannot be seen as an expression of freedom of thought but, rather, as proof of his utter submissiveness to a system of oppression.
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Mr. Whitechapel finally feels at peace and ceases to be conflicted, as he feels included in the same group as his fellow plantation owners and accepted by all. Despite Chapel’s death, he feels comfort in knowing that his loyal slave Whitechapel is still alive. After revealing the truth to his fellow plantation owners, he  ceases to feel shame and trusts that he has owned up to his family name.
Mr. Whitechapel’s qualms about Chapel’s fate prove insufficient to make him reject the company of his brutal peers. Rather, he prefers to stop thinking about his moral responsibility and, instead, to take joy in feeling part of a strong social group. This reinforces the idea that Mr. Whitechapel is only superficially interested in treating slaves with respect, for his greatest concern is simply to maintain his status as a powerful slave owner.
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