Set in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia, where slavery is an ordinary aspect of life, Fred D’Aguiar’s 1994 novel, The Longest Memory, revolves around one tragic event: the death of the slave Whitechapel’s son Chapel, who is whipped to death for running away. As various characters reflect on their life on Mr. Whitechapel’s plantation, the economic, social, and political ramifications of slavery come to light, providing the context to understand the motives behind the young boy’s death.
Whitechapel, the oldest slave on the plantation, is widely admired by authority figures for his knowledge, hard work, and obedience. He believes in the existence of two types of slaves: rebellious slaves who cannot accept their lack of freedom and thus get into trouble, and obedient slaves who rightly behave according to their status in society. While Whitechapel belongs to the second category, which he believes brings long-term peace and stability and establishes a relationship of mutual trust between slave and master, Chapel belongs to the more volatile, first category, which Whitechapel is convinced will only bring trouble for his son.
Whitechapel is committed to protecting his family at all costs. Most of the slaves on the plantation are his own family members, as he had twelve children with his first wife and is now surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. After the death of his first wife, Whitechapel falls in love with a new slave on the plantation: a young woman whom the overseer, Sanders Senior, calls “Cook” and uses as his cook and the caretaker of his son, Sanders Junior. With Mr. Whitechapel’s consent, Whitechapel makes plans to marry her. However, in the meantime, Sanders Senior rapes Cook twice, causing her to lose her virginity and to become pregnant.
When Cook tells her new husband, Whitechapel, about what has happened, Whitechapel in turn relates the news to his master. Furious about his overseer’s actions, Mr. Whitechapel decides to fine (rather than fire) Sanders Senior and forces him to apologize to both Cook and Whitechapel for his actions. Whitechapel initially has doubts about whether or not he wants to stay with Cook now that he knows she has been raped, but he ultimately decides to commit to his wife, whom he loves, and put the past behind them. He accepts her son as his own and calls him Whitechapel, which his mother shortens to “Chapel.” Overall, he impresses his wife with his devotion to his family and his capacity to make figures of authority treat him with fairness and respect.
Over the years, Chapel grows up with a strong desire to learn and develop his talents. At the master’s house, he becomes fascinated with Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter’s main activity: reading. Moved by the young boy’s curiosity, Lydia teaches him to read and, later, to write, even though such activities are strictly forbidden to slaves. Over the course of two years, in the small, intimate environment of the master’s reading room, the two of them fall in love and develop a relationship nourished by mutual learning. One day, though, Mr. Whitechapel catches them together and, after ordering Lydia out of the room, beats Chapel with his belt. He orders the young boy never to read or see his daughter again.
Cook has also discovered her son’s secret activity. Even though she knows reading is forbidden, she feels proud of her son’s achievements, admiring the fact that his reading voice resembles that of his master’s. She respects her husband’s views about obedience and the importance of preserving trust between slave and master, but prefers to let protect her son’s happiness and decides to keep what she has discovered to herself. However, she mediates between Lydia and Chapel so that they can meet outside at night. During these clandestine meetings, the two young people share literary knowledge: Chapel composes poems in his mind and recites them to Lydia and, in turn, Lydia recites entire books she has memorized for Chapel. The two of them also dream of a future together. When Lydia learns about the North from her brother, Thomas, and discovers that interracial relationships are possible there, she encourages Chapel to think about running away together. Despite the numerous obstacles and dangers involved in such a trip, Chapel feels inspired to think about escaping.
Cook falls ill and dies a slow, painful death over the course of a few weeks, during which her devoted husband and son take care of her. When Cook finally dies, Chapel, feeling that he has nothing left to lose, decides to run away. Upon discovering his son’s escape, Whitechapel is faced with a dilemma: while telling his master about his son’s whereabouts might be seen as a betrayal, Whitechapel believes that running away is likely to lead to his son’s death, as search parties usually kill runaway slaves. By contrast, on the plantation, Whitechapel trusts that he can negotiate a fair punishment for his son, which would spare his life. To protect his son’s life and instruct in him the importance of obedience, which maintains peace and stability on the plantation, Whitechapel ultimately decides to tell his master where his son is hiding.
After hearing his slave’s pleas, Mr. Whitechapel agrees to order Chapel to be locked up, once he is caught, until his return from a day-long family trip. He plans to spare the boy’s life but give him an exemplary punishment that would keep him—and the other slaves on the plantation—from ever trying to run away again. However, once the search party brings the young boy back to the plantation, Sanders Junior, who is now the overseer, decides to ignore the master’s orders. Instead, he announces his decision to give Chapel two hundred lashes, which shocks all the slaves on the plantation. Although Whitechapel begs to take the place of his son, and the other slaves plead for the boy’s life, the overseer remains unmoved. Halfway through the whipping, it becomes clear that Chapel is mentally gone and, a few moments after the punishment is over, the young boy dies of his wounds.
This event leaves Whitechapel completely crushed. As the rest of the community stays away from him, blaming him for his son’s death, Whitechapel becomes completely passive and apathetic, taking on the same emotionless stare that his son adopted in death. He realizes that his belief in the fairness of the system, which he thought would respect his and his family’s lives, was illusory. Instead, he is forced to accept that he was incapable of protecting his own child’s life, which overwhelms him with guilt and grief. Convinced that he has lost all right to possess an individual identity, he decides to abandon his name and to reject his entire memory. He accepts to become nothing more than a body deprived of all emotion and pain, a mere tool at his master’s service, and something that other people can treat as they will.
Whitechapel reflects on his life and admits that he knew his son was born to be free. His judgment does not rely on a belief in universal freedom, but on his son’s biracial nature, as he believes that the mix of races in Chapel’s blood made him unsuited to life as a mere slave. Whitechapel realizes that he has been wrong all his life to believe that obedience would ensure survival for himself and his family. Instead, he is forced to accept that his philosophy of self-sacrifice has failed him and the people he loved the most. The system of slavery, which relies on principles of racial inferiority and the dehumanizing treatment of slaves, proved more powerful than even Whitechapel’s well-intentioned actions. Overcome by the knowledge of his own mistakes and the injustice of life, Whitechapel dies of pain and sadness.