While some characters in The Longest Memory, such as Lydia and Chapel, argue that blacks should be granted the same rights as whites, most of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginian society proves hostile to the concept of equality, preferring instead to believe that blacks are inherently inferior. Racism determines the nature of economic and social relations between whites and blacks. Such entrenched inequality sets a fragile foundation for the nation’s present and future, as it remains uncertain how society might handle the long-lasting effects of discrimination and oppression. The novel’s prophetic interrogations of the future foreshadow the difficulties that American society will face in reconciling Northern and Southern mindsets and, more generally, in allowing blacks and whites to prosper side by side.
Despite being learned behavior, racism corrupts everyone—including members of the oppressed, black minority. Racism is not innate, but rather comes from observing and abiding by societal dynamics. As a young boy, the overseer Sanders Junior asks his father, Sanders Senior, about racial inequality: “he asked me why they were dark and we were bright. His word ‘bright.’” The child realizes that the division between people’s skin colors is arbitrary, following no logic that he can perceive. In this way, it becomes apparent that he has to learn to consider blacks not only inherently different from him, but also inferior. His later adherence to a strict code separating whites and blacks in terms of superiority and inferiority—evident in his punishment of the runaway slave, Chapel—shows that societal dynamics can shape even a previously skeptic young boy’s behavior for the rest of his life.
Racism is so prevalent that even slaves can find themselves participating in this ideology. “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,” Whitechapel explains, concluding that the first slave (the rebellious one) is wrong and bound to experience trouble, whereas the quieter, more obedient slave can live a peaceful life. Whitechapel does not necessarily believe in the inferiority of blacks, but he does believe that slaves must learn to accept their position in society. In this way, he effectively accepts the inferior social and economic position that is given to blacks, seemingly without questioning it on a moral level.
This understanding informs Whitechapel’s entire vision of life. Instead of considering that his son should be independent as a human being, Whitechapel believes that it is only because of Chapel’s biracial nature—the result of Sanders Senior’s rape of Cook—that he can claim the right to rebellion. “You were born half a slave, half the master of your own destiny,” he says in an imaginary dialogue with his son. “Shall I tell you about your blood? That two races are distributed evenly in it?” Whitechapel abides by the narrow division of humans into two races, which he believes determines an individual’s right to freedom. Whitechapel’s understanding of his son’s rebellious nature does not depend on universal freedom, but on an acceptance of race as a determining factor in people’s minds and attitudes.
While some people attempt to overcome such divisions between blacks and whites, their efforts often seem bound to fail. For slaves, running away and escaping slavery is likely to get them killed. Among her fellow white Southerners, Lydia’s efforts to open a dialogue about slavery with the local newspaper, The Virginian, fails from the moment she mentions the possibility of interracial relations, which the editor considers heinous and unacceptable. It becomes obvious that the only possibility for Lydia and Chapel to live happily is to escape to the North.
These various experiences underline the idea that racism is a deeply-rooted problem, affecting the social and economic fabric of society. Such entrenched divisions lay unequal foundations for society’s future. In the novel, characters reflect on the difficulty of handling the social and economic legacy of slavery, prophesizing the harmful, long-term effects of violence and discrimination against the country’s black population. Whitechapel, for example, foresees a depressing future in which society simply reproduces the same dynamics of oppression and inequality over time: “The future is just more of the past waiting to happen.” His very name—Whitechapel, the same as his master’s—suggests that oppression is inherited, generation after generation, and that little can be done to change it.
Other people believe that change will only happen through tension and conflict. Responding to a letter that Lydia sent to the newspaper, the editor worries about the legacy of interracial relationships: “what will become of the offspring from these heinous alliances? Where is their place in these States when they see themselves as our equal and feel it too because the blood courses through their veins?” The racist editor proves prophetic in his anticipation of racial tensions, as he imagines that the fight for African-Americans’ equality and socio-economic “place” in society will involve grappling with centuries of violent discrimination.
However, other characters are more optimistic. Despite benefiting directly from slavery, Mr. Whitechapel believes that the expansion of slaves’ rights, perhaps to the point of freedom, “might be possible in the future.” Even the intolerant, racist editor in The Virginian admits that racial dynamics might change. Commenting on Lydia’s views, he writes: “Whatever we may think of this young lady’s opinions we must grant that she demonstrates intelligence and certain advantages that go with being young, namely an unmitigated idealism. This is as it should be. It is the young, after all, who hold dominion over the future.”
As bleak as the present or the future might seem, the novel concludes, society is capable of changing, however slowly or violently these changes might occur. As history proves, through the later Civil War and the ongoing struggle to achieve equality between blacks and whites, no change is ever perfect or complete. Rather, each generation—the idealistic “young”—must fight to solve the problems of their time and defend their dream of a better future.
Racism and Inequality ThemeTracker
Racism and Inequality 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.
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.
“Africans may be our inferiors, but they exhibit the same qualities we possess, even if they are merely imitating us. Their management is best exemplified by an approach that treats them first and foremost as subjects of God, though blessed with lesser faculties, and therefore suited to the trade of slavery.”
I told my son that we are different from slaves in intelligence and human standing before God. He asked why Whitechapel could do a knot that I couldn’t do. His first joke. Not a bad one. I said doing things like that was not a proper measure of intelligence. Then he asked why they were dark and we were bright. His word “bright.”
“Whitechapel, you even got a mention in The Virginian.”
“The death of one slave does not make me one of you.”
“True, Whitechapel, true, it does not; it makes you a fool.”
“And, after all you’ve said, a hypocrite too. ‘The slaves have rights as humans; they are not just tools.’”
“What about this? ‘Show them respect and they’ll work hard.’”
“‘They may be inferior but they’re people like us.’ Lost your tongue, Whitechapel?”
“Our line of work is slaves, we can’t change the fact. We do it the way we think best serves our investment.”
“It’s not a charity.”
“We are Christians but Christianity does not equal weakness.”
“We treat our slaves with a firm hand, we’re severe in the hope that other slaves will behave well out of fear.”
“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?”