Whitechapel is the novel's protagonist. As a ten-year-old boy, Whitechapel is abducted in Africa and sold into slavery. He lives out his long life as a slave on a Virginian plantation in the 1700s owned by the Whitechapel family, from whom Whitechapel receives his name. He is respected and liked by the master and overseer for his deference to their authority. When his son Chapel escapes, Whitechapel tells the master which route Chapel has taken. Whitechapel lives out his last days as a social pariah among his many offspring who hold him accountable for Chapel's murder.
Chapel is the mixed-race offspring of Cook and Sanders Senior, who rapes Cook before and after Cook marries Whitechapel. Chapel is raised believing that Whitechapel is his biological father. Whitechapel and Chapel come into conflict when Chapel wants to live as a free man while Whitechapel has only known the life of a slave.
Mr. Whitechapel is the plantation owner and slave master. As a Christian, Mr. Whitechapel believes that if he respects his slaves and treats them well, they will be more respectful and hardworking. However, he nonetheless sees his slaves as belonging to a lesser race and believes that the human qualities they exhibit are learned through observing white people. Mr. Whitechapel develops a reputation among fellow plantation owners as being too lenient toward disobedient slaves.
Cook is Whitechapel’s wife and Chapel's mother. Mr. Whitechapel buys her at auction when she is fifteen, though Sanders Senior expects she is lying about her age and is actually twenty-two. While working as Sanders Senior's cook, Sanders Senior twice rapes her. She later gives birth to Chapel, raising him with Whitechapel as their son. When Cook finds out that her son learned to read, she cannot bring herself to punish him because of the pride she feels at his intelligence.
Lydia is Mr. Whitechapel's daughter. When she and Chapel are children, she secretly teaches Chapel how to read and write, even though she knows masters do not allow slaves to acquire these skills. She falls in love with Chapel and the sound of his voice as he reads Shakespeare and poetry aloud to her. Lydia and Chapel meet nightly in the dark, sitting back to back, and plan to escape North to New York or Boston, where white women and free black men openly walk arm in arm in the street. Under the pen name Miss L., Lydia writes to the editorial writer at The Virginian to advocate for the abolition of slavery.
Sanders Junior is the overseer on the plantation. He is raised without knowing that his mother died during childbirth. His father also neglects to tell him that Chapel is his half-brother. Sanders Junior lashes Chapel to death.
Sanders Senior is Sanders' father and Chapel's biological father. He works as Mr. Whitechapel's plantation overseer in the late 1700s. Sanders Senior's wife died during childbirth. After six years of being alone, he raped Whitechapel's new wife and impregnated her with Chapel.
Whitechapel's great granddaughter provides the narration in one of the book's later chapters. She describes how Whitechapel would bathe her as a child and how he discouraged her dreams of Africa. She later holds him accountable for Chapel's murder.
In the chapter titled "Plantation Owners," Mr. Whitechapel's fellow plantation owners are represented as disembodied voices in a smoke-filled room at the Gentleman's Club. The collective voice of the plantation owners is mocking, teasing Mr. Whitechapel for the hypocrisy of advocating leniency and respect toward slaves only to lash one of his slaves to death.
Caroline is Sanders Senior's wife and Sanders Junior's mother. Caroline dies in childbirth and is present in the narrative only insofar as she appears in Sanders Senior's dreams.
The Longest Memory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Longest Memory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.