While love can blossom on Southern plantations, relationships formed in the midst of slavery are inherently fragile, threatened by the external dangers of a racist society. The taboo nature of interracial relationships keeps lovers (such as Lydia and Chapel) from being together, and the lack of consideration for black people’s lives risks tearing apart the family that Whitechapel and Cook have created. Despite these obstacles, it is precisely the possibility—however frail—of developing meaningful relationships that allows slaves to feel human and to want to fight for their happiness. Love and family, the novel thus suggests, are invaluable means for survival and joy within an oppressive environment.
The novel highlights that stable relationships are possible in the midst of violent oppression. Despite Whitechapel’s status as a slave, he impresses his wife, Cook, with his love and ability to deliver on his promises. Cook notes, “Only death could divide us, he said. This I took to be idle talk; the sweetness of a man’s tongue when he hungers for a woman. Not Whitechapel. How can a slave promise such things, I challenged. He said I should trust him.” Cook is most surprised by Whitechapel’s decision to stay with her even after she reveals that the overseer, Sanders Senior, has repeatedly raped her, and that she is now pregnant his child. Despite some initial hesitation, Whitechapel’s ultimate dedication to Cook not only rejects common social behavior of the time (which deemed it acceptable for a man to abandon his wife after she had been raped), but also his very status as a slave, since he promises her the same things that a free man would promise his wife.
Although illicit and fraught with peril, even the relationship between Chapel and Lydia, Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter, thrives, at least temporarily. Despite Mr. Whitechapel’s orders for Lydia and Chapel never to see each other again, the two young people are able to secretly meet at night and to dream about their future, thus flouting the master’s supposed dominance on the plantation. Lydia, who has heard about interracial marriages in the North, convinces Chapel that they might be able to escape and build a new life in such a place. Combined with his desire for freedom, Chapel’s love for Lydia encourages him to try to fight for his happiness by running away.
Of course, as in other aspects of slaves’ lives, romantic and family relationships are marked by the oppressive nature of discrimination and social conformity. Relationships on the plantations reflect—and, sometimes, perpetuate—inequalities that affect society as a whole. In early nineteenth-century Virginian society, women were not expected to marry for love, nor were they considered men’s equals. Despite Whitechapel and Cook’s shared status as slaves, Cook is more vulnerable to sexual abuse on the plantation and is sometimes referred to as her husband’s property. She is also subject to misogynistic double standards. After she is raped by Sanders Senior, her supposed purity is tarnished. “Whitechapel lost his second wife to your father. […] She was pure and unsullied, until he laid hands on her,” Mr. Whitechapel tells Sanders Junior. At first, Whitechapel himself doubts whether he wants to accept Cook after the rape. “Whitechapel it seems wants to give her up but was persuaded by Mr. Whitechapel to wait.” The idea that Cook is “lost” and that Whitechapel might “give her up” reduces her value as a woman to her virginity. It also implies that Cook’s rape is somehow her fault, and that she must pay the price for it. In the end, though, Whitechapel changes his mind and determines to keep his wife from being defined by this rape. He commits to giving her a new future, as free from harm as possible.
Even white women have to abide by society’s gendered expectations. Lydia’s family, for example, pressures her to find a husband, regardless of what her actual feelings toward her suitors might be. A woman, it seems, should be docile and limit her role the domestic sphere. However, Lydia fights against such norms, deciding that she prefers to build a relationship with Chapel based on mutual learning and growth. In both relationships, then, love overcomes the social inequality between men and women. These characters’ commitment to caring, reciprocal relationships in an environment rife with injustice suggests that they try, as best they can, to keep their private lives separate from harmful public standards. Even though external social pressures might make these relationships seem fragile, true love thus proves capable of compensating for the burden of inequality.
At the same time, relationships are not immune to all kinds of external attacks. The inherently violent nature of racism and slavery proves particularly dangerous, as slavery’s direct threat to individuals’ lives proves to be the greatest danger to relationships. As Sanders Senior’s rape of Cook is concealed—in part because of the brutal power dynamics at play, but especially because of the interracial nature of this relationship—the overseer Sanders Junior only discovers that Chapel was his half-brother after he has whipped him to death. Sanders Junior ultimately concludes that knowing that Chapel was his half-brother would have changed nothing, since Chapel was a rebellious slave who deserved to be punished. The overseer considers blood ties irrelevant in a society where the rules are simple: slaves have to obey their superiors. He also trusts that Chapel’s black skin makes him inherently inferior to him, proving sufficient to negate his white parentage.
Despite the fragility of relationships in the novel, the bonds that exist between vulnerable characters reveal the human capacity to receive comfort and to give love to others even in the direst of circumstances. However tragic, the image that arises from these stories is one of resilience in the midst of oppression, as love and family becomes more important than basic self-preservation. The difficulty of maintaining a caring relationship in the midst of a dehumanizing environment only emphasizes the nobility and power of such relationships, as individuals try to invent their own, private rules to counter the oppressive reality of everyday life.
Love, Sex, and Family ThemeTracker
Love, Sex, and Family Quotes in The Longest Memory
“My hand is not the whip son,” I said or imagined saying to him. He nodded to everything, then nothing. I had to have no name to match this look and the remainder of this life.
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.
I killed my son because I wanted him next to me when I died. Just as he had held his heavy mother weighted by death for me to listen to her last breath, he would hold my head to help my last words out.
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.
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.
“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?”