The Longest Memory explores the horror of slavery through its dissection of life on a Virginia plantation in the early nineteenth century. Whitechapel, the oldest and most respected slave on the plantation, does not believe in his freedom, trusting instead that he should show subservience toward his master, Mr. Whitechapel, to protect his life. By contrast, Whitechapel’s son, Chapel, wants to fight for liberation. When Chapel escapes from the plantation, Whitechapel is forced to decide whether he wants to let his son attempt a risky journey to the North, which is likely to get him killed, or whether he should negotiate with Mr. Whitechapel a fair punishment that would spare Chapel’s life. Whitechapel’s subsequent decision to betray his son’s whereabouts leads to Chapel’s brutal whipping and ultimate death, shattering Whitechapel’s views about obedience. D’Aguiar uses Chapel’s death to underscore the fact that, no matter how well they behave, slaves inherently lack the freedom to protect their own bodies and lives. In this way, he ultimately suggests that the only way for slaves to maintain a sense of agency and humanity is to retain their own moral freedom. Otherwise, they become nothing more than mere tools blindly serving the master’s purposes.
A core conflict of the novel arises from the contradiction between Whitechapel and his son’s differing conceptions of a meaningful life. Whitechapel advocates a philosophy of survival, deeming it necessary for slaves to obey their masters in order to protect themselves and their families. Chapel, on the other hand, believes that life is only worth living if he can achieve freedom. Whitechapel’s firmly held belief in the protective nature of obedience is why, when Chapel runs away, Whitechapel disapproves of this action and fears for his son’s life. His misguided decision to tell the master about his son’s whereabouts follows a personal logic based on physical preservation. Indeed, Whitechapel believes that his son is more likely to die if he runs away than if he stays on the plantation, because trackers will kill him outright if they find him. Whitechapel trusts that his ability to negotiate a fair punishment with his master will spare his son’s life, as well as discourage other slaves on the plantation from trying to escape (and, it follows, keep them from endangering themselves). In this way, Whitechapel is willing to sacrifice slaves’ moral and spiritual freedom in order to protect their physical lives.
However, Whitechapel does take part in small acts of resistance that reveal an underlying belief in his own moral agency. These acts show that he is willing, within certain boundaries, to defend his freedom. After Chapel’s escape, he temporarily conceals information from his master, in the goal of trying to negotiate his son’s fair treatment. Mr. Whitechapel, he notes, “was furious and appeared to judge my knowledge of my son’s whereabouts as some form of power over him, my master.” Later, Whitechapel audaciously argues with Sanders Junior, the plantation’s overseer, who wants to give Chapel two hundred lashes instead of following the master’s orders. In both cases, Whitechapel oversteps his own role and shows defiance toward his superiors for the sake of protecting his family. He seems convinced that, in these particular cases, he has the right to speak his mind and defend his point of view, even if this involves small acts of disobedience.
This defiance shows that Whitechapel does trust in his power to determine right from wrong and to exercise moral agency. It also demonstrates a largely illusory trust in the system, as Whitechapel believes that his master and the overseer will actually be able and willing to protect his son’s life. After Chapel’s death, Whitechapel realizes that he does not actually have the power to protect his own son’s life, and that his views about obedience are therefore erroneous. Obedience does not protect one’s life, but rather encourages dehumanizing passivity and subjugation. He realizes that slaves’ survival is arbitrary and subject to the whims of authority figures. The only hope for slaves to maintain their humanity, then, is for them to believe in their own internal freedom, separate from the rules of slavery.
This leads Whitechapel to conclude that survival without freedom is meaningless. Without the capacity to transform one’s internal knowledge of right and wrong into concrete action, the life of an obedient slave loses all purpose. “[I] decided that from this day I had no name,” he notes, speaking about the day of Chapel’s death. “I was just boy, mule, nigger, slave or whatever else anyone chose to call me.” As a passive, resigned slave, he becomes a mere piece of property, like a “mule,” that must serve the plantation staff’s orders even if they threaten his life or those of the people he loves.
Retaining one’s humanity within the confines of slavery thus involves trusting in one’s own freedom, however frail this freedom might be. Regardless of the riskiness of Chapel’s escape attempt, it allowed him to take control over his life and assert his human agency. Similarly, Whitechapel’s discussions with his master and the overseer protected his humanity, demonstrating that he retained his freedom of thought. Therefore, without such protection of one’s moral independence, being a slave merely equates to being a piece of the master’s property.
Furthermore, the possibility for a slave to retain a sense of freedom has the potential to impact an entire community. For example, Whitechapel’s desire to punish his son for running away makes him complicit of the entire system of slavery, as his rigid principles turn him into an oppressor whose actions perpetuate discrimination and injustice, by reducing everyone’s incentives to run away or rebel. Similarly, even if Chapel’s desire to run away is personal, his decision is also a political one, affirming symbolically that no human being should have to live in such degrading conditions. More than a mere conflict between father and son, then, Whitechapel and Chapel’s views about freedom have potential repercussions on everyone’s lives. They are capable of inspiring slaves to rebel or, on the other hand, to accept their harrowing existence.
Freedom vs. Obedience ThemeTracker
Freedom vs. Obedience Quotes in The Longest Memory
The future is just more of the past waiting to happen. You do not want to know my past nor do you want to know my name for the simple reason that I have none and would have to make it up to please you. What my eyes say has never been true. All these years of my life are in my hands, not in these eyes or even in this head. I woke up one day […] and decided that from this day I had no name. I was just boy, mule, nigger, slave or whatever else anyone chose to call me.
Worry cut those paths in my face. I let it happen because I didn’t feel it happening and only knew it was there when someone called me Sour-face one day and I looked in the mirror for evidence and found plenty staring back at me.
What was I before this? I forget. Did I smile? Laugh out loud? Don’t recall. To laugh. What is that? I think of a donkey braying. That is like a big laugh, involuntary, involving the whole body, noisy and long and toothy.
There are two types of slave: the slave who must experience everything for himself before coming to an understanding of anything and he who learns through observation. The slave in the first category behaves as if he is the only slave in the world and is visited by the worst luck on earth. That type of slave is agitated, brings much trouble on his head and he makes the lot of every slave ten times worse. It is generally accepted that the slave in the second category is brighter, lives longer, causes everyone around him a minimum of worries and earns the small kindness of the overseer and the master.
Protector of the worst fate of your people or any people. Is that what I have become? The master of my fate. No longer in need of control or supervision. One so accustomed to his existence that he impinges on his own freedom and can be left to his own devices. A master of his own slavery. Slave and enslaver. Model slave. Self-governing slave. Thinks freedom is death. Thinks paradise is the afterlife.
Whitechapel saved me. The second time I had to tell someone or surely die. There was no one to tell but my husband. Whitechapel saved my life. A child not his. A pure wife no longer pure. Any other man would have thrown me away. He is no ordinary man. His master respects him.
“How could your Whitechapel watch and not intervene?”
“He lost a son in deference to authority.”
“Name your price. That slave of yours is a slaver’s dream.”
“He’s still not for sale.”
“He deserves your family name.”
“Well said indeed.”
“If he were white he’d still be rare.”
“Let’s drink a toast. To Whitechapel and to his slave.”
You would hold up your glorious life as an example of the slave who has done all the proper things to survive and earn the respect of the master and overseer.
I can hear you, my husband. Your voice is strong and clear but without the strength and clarity of the voice of my son as he lifts word after word from the pages of a book.
“By teaching little Whitechapel to read and write when he can never use it you have done him the gravest injustice.” I want to reply that a law which says a slave should not read and write is unjust. But I look at my feet and nod when he enquires whether I have heard every word. He said it might be possible in the future. I look up at him and, as if to dash my hopes of a future when Chapel and I could sit and read together, he adds, in the next century, perhaps.
Young, nubile female slaves are a temptation to us all, but one that should be religiously avoided. […] If these female slaves are used in this way they engender bitterness in a house between the overseer and his wife or the master and his wife. The slave may even become aware of this influence and exploit it to her own advantage. I therefore argue for restraint.
He never talked about Africa. It was his view, I found out later, that such talk promoted day dreams and insolence on the plantation. He said Africa was his past and not ours. If anyone had the right to dream about it, he did and he chose not to, so why should anyone else.
“I couldn’t strike you. You showed me how to run things. My father spoke highly of you. You were a better overseer than I. There I was, thinking I was the first one to rise in the morning, setting an example for everyone, and you were out here even before me. Always first and last in everything. I am sorry about your son. Not my brother. I knew him only as the son of a slave. He was trouble from the day he talked. He not only asked questions but when you gave him an answer he was never satisfied. He always asked why: Why this? Why that?”
“Shall I tell you about your blood? That two races are distributed evenly in it? Shall I help you prepare for a life elsewhere? Where? This is the only place I know. Maybe I am wrong, I wonder to myself as I see myself doing it, wrong to tell the master that my son is gone and say I want him back under my guidance and protection. Then I ask myself, after I see the entire scene, what guidance? What protection?”