Set between 1790 and 1810 on a Virginia plantation, and narrated from several perspectives, The Longest Memory opens in the voice of Whitechapel, an elderly slave. In first-person present tense, Whitechapel directly addresses the reader saying that we do not want to know his past or name. Whitechapel says he woke early one morning, confronted a damp, starlight morning, and decided he had no name. He would just be known as whatever people call him: “boy, mule, nigger, slave.”
Whitechapel says his eyes are bloodshot, but he has not been crying. The last time he cried was over the pointless death of a boy he loved as his own. Whitechapel swore it would be the last time he cried because the crying was so painful in the way it overtook his exhausted body. He says the boy needed to learn a lesson for what he did, but he would have learned with a good talking to or even a less-harsh beating. But the boy didn’t deserve what he got. Whitechapel says he doesn’t want to remember. His memory hurts as much as crying. He asks to not be made to remember; he says he forgets as hard as he can.
The morning he decided to give up his name and face the world as a nobody, Whitechapel returned to his space on his straw mat, clearing other people’s limbs out of the way and sleeping deeply. Before the name change, he would go to sleep last and wake first, listening to the others grind their teeth and make animal-like sounds in their sleep, or release a final gasp before dying. Whitechapel describes the final breath as being fought for: air is sucked in and the person’s eyes fly open, panicked to know the dream of death is real.
Whitechapel says he has seen too many deaths for one lifetime. The boy’s two hundred lashes lasted less than twenty minutes but he was gone halfway into the whipping. He switched away from the pattern of screaming, catching his breath, and tensing for the next blow. Whitechapel learned to live without being hurt by life when he saw the boy surrender to the whip. Everyone watching cried for mercy, but the boy always answered clearly when his name was called, and so the whipping continued. It ate into him like a gluttonous thing, chewing and swallowing bit by bit, feeding on the boy’s back until the count reached two hundred.
Whitechapel says when it ended they cut the boy down and called his name; he nodded and answered but his look was distant, removed from what his body had just endured. He was not worried about anyone's fuss or grief for him. From that moment, Whitechapel took on the boy’s dissociated look. Whitechapel tended to the boy’s lacerated back. When the boy recoiled, Whitechapel said, or imagined saying: “My hand is not the whip son.” Whitechapel says he had to have no name to match the boy’s look and the remainder of his life.
Whitechapel says he is called Sour-face because the deep frown lines on either side of his mouth, chiseled there without his permission. He wonders what he was before, whether he smiled or laughed out loud. He can’t recall ever laughing, and doesn’t believe he’ll laugh again. His life was fresh to begin with but it was left out too long and has turned to this. Whitechapel has buried two wives and most of his children. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren who surround him think he is a Judas. They check on him occasionally but leave him alone most of the day, disappearing for a day in the plantation fields. One day his great-grandchild knocked him over when running around a corner and kept running; Whitechapel saw stars. They think of him as a laughingstock, an obstacle, and, when he goes blind, a burden.
Whitechapel recalls when his wife died. The pillows behind her were compressed from the weight of her dying in bed for weeks. She asked him not to leave her waiting too long for him in the afterlife, and the next day Whitechapel’s son died. He says he promised her he wouldn’t be too long but sent his son in his place less than a full day later. Now Whitechapel can’t die because he can’t face his wife blaming him for sending their son to death. Whitechapel says his great-grandchild kept running that day he knocked Whitechapel over in part to avenge Whitechapel’s son. Each time he sees the stars from that day a little longer; he knows they’ll be the last thing he sees and he’ll be glad because of it.
Whitechapel says his boy required a simple lesson in obedience and to know his station before it was too late. Whitechapel believed some punishment would do him good and keep him alive by driving from the boy’s head any notion of freedom from responsibility. He was born owned by another man, just like Whitechapel was, and like their descendants would be. As straightforward as the arrangement sounds, Whitechapel says there are still many runaways. Whitechapel questions where slaves think they will go when they escape. He believes that a person is bound to die when they run from the plantation. Whitechapel believes a slave could live a good long life if he worked hard and presented the most dignified manner to his master. He had told his son this, but Whitechapel knows the boy put his argument down to old age or cowardice or both.
When Whitechapel’s son walked away shaking his head, and Whitechapel decided to teach him a lesson to save him from himself. That day Whitechapel was distracted with his wife’s final moments and forgot about his conversation with his son. He learned that his son had run away and the overseer had set out a search party. Whitechapel went to his master, Mr. Whitechapel, who was angry to have Whitechapel’s son putting ideas into the other slaves’ heads. Whitechapel asked to send another man to ensure the search party brought Whitechapel’s son back safely so he could be justly punished. Mr. Whitechapel said it was out of his hands and in God’s. Whitechapel said he knew his son had taken the river path. Mr. Whitechapel sent a man out to find the North-bound search party and send them on the river path, adding that he wanted Whitechapel’s son brought back so an example could be made of him.
As the day set on, Mr. Whitechapel and his guests headed North to Fredericksburg as planned and Mr. Whitechapel left instructions for Whitechapel’s son to be locked up so Mr. Whitechapel could oversee the punishment. Whitechapel waited anxiously, walking the eerily silent grounds until finally his son was brought back, tear-stained and bruised but alive. Whitechapel told Mr. Sanders, the overseer, about the master’s instructions not to harm his son yet, but Sanders was tired and confused and punched Whitechapel in the head. Whitechapel’s son lunged at Sanders but was easily restrained by the other men on the search party. Sanders explained that he spent the day hunting down Whitechapel’s son, and didn’t kill him when he found him so that an example could be made. He told Whitechapel that he wouldn’t take orders from slaves, however old they were. There was no way Whitechapel’s son was not going to get the usual punishment. Whitechapel asks Sanders that he be lashed in his son’s place, but Sanders laughed and told others to restrain Whitechapel during his son’s lashing. No mercy was granted to Whitechapel or his son. Now everyone blames Whitechapel for his son’s death.
With the prologue “Remembering” and the first chapter, The Longest Memory opens by introducing the crucial themes of memory and violence. Whitechapel justifies his renunciation of the name he has always been known by during his long life of slavery: Having witnessed the traumatic death of his only son, Chapel, Whitechapel seeks to erase his painful memories and face the world as a blank person without a past or a name. Whitechapel emphasizes the pain of remembering by likening the act to crying: both crying and remembering dredge up the same traumatic pain.
Despite his efforts to forget “as hard as he can,” Whitechapel’s internal monologue goes on to address Chapel’s death by lashing. The trauma of witnessing the extreme, unendurable violence of Chapel’s two hundred lashes killed something inside Whitechapel, and he learned to live without being hurt by life. As part of his deadening, Whitechapel took on the detached, dissociated look he saw in Chapel’s eyes as Sanders whipped him. Whitechapel explains that his decision to renounce his name was in order to match Chapel’s blank look.
Modeling the looping, non-chronological manner in which the brain makes sense of traumatic events, Whitechapel’s monologue next moves backward from Chapel’s lashing to the events that proceeded the violence. Whitechapel explains that Chapel had come to Whitechapel to discuss his escape from the plantation. With this information, Whitechapel goes to his master, Mr. Whitechapel, to tell him where to direct the search party. Whitechapel’s decision to satisfy his master over protecting his son speaks to the novel’s thematic concern with Whitechapel having assimilated notions of his inferiority. In contrast to Chapel’s desire for freedom from slavery, Whitechapel only knows the life of a slave; he has absorbed and come to believe the racist ideology that justifies his enslavement and white Americans’ freedom.
Whitechapel’s obedience to his master and betrayal of his son seals Chapel’s fate. After Mr. Whitechapel redirects the search party from its North-bound route to the river route, the men capture Chapel and bring him back to the plantation for the lashing that ends his life. Although Whitechapel asks that he being lashed in Chapel’s place, Sanders grants neither him nor Chapel any mercy.
Because of Whitechapel’s betrayal, everyone on the plantation blames Whitechapel for Chapel’s death. In an instance of situational irony, Whitechapel hoped to teach his son a lesson in obedience, and wound up getting his son killed. With this fuller picture of Whitechapel’s guilt, the reader better understands the truth behind Whitechapel’s desire to forget. He would like to forget not only the pain he endured while watching his son be lashed but the pain he endured as a consequence of knowing the lashing was his fault.