Poet Fred D’aguiar’s first novel, The Long Memory is a Virginia plantation-set, early 19th century story of Whitechapel, the oldest and most respected slave on the plantation.
Now to be found on school curriculum set books, in exploring the traumatic nature and legacy of slavery, The Long Memory is unexpectedly beautifully written in (mostly) poetic prose, slipping between first and second person as Whitechapel reflects on his life as he watches his son’s life whipped out of him. 200 lashes for having dared attempt to escape. As the last breath ebbs from the torn and broken body, the other slaves, forced to watch, turn to Whitechapel. Having given away Chapel’s likely whereabouts, it is the old man who is blamed.
Crushed, the old man recalls early memories, of a life committed to the protection of family within the slave environment. Married twice, the first bearing 12 daughters, the second (to Cook and many years his junior) one son, Whitechapel questions his beliefs and life of servitude where obedience would ensure survival for himself and his family.
Whitechapel had his reasons for the betrayal, believing his son would die if not captured and returned home to the plantation.
A simple lesson in obedience was all that my boy required. He needed to know his station sooner rather than too late. I believed some punishment would do him good because it would keep him alive by driving any notion of freedom from responsibility.
His opinions highlight the differing approaches of slaves to their predicament – cooperation or resistance, with the former providing leniency and an easier life, the latter rejecting the perpetuation of slavedom. Chapel was choosing the latter, with the intention of heading north and the world of personal freedom.
Slave owners are also shown with diverging views – most are brutal, a few more progressive. The owner of the plantation, Mr Whitechapel, fits the latter – and is mocked by others as too soft, giving rise to examples of punishments dished out to erring slaves – man, woman or child. But neither question the rights of ownership.
Exploring the complicities and complexities between a black slave and a white master, The Long Memory looks to a part of the shameful history of early 19th century America. Surprisingly without anger, British writer D’aguiar (himself descendant from Guyanan slaves) presents different voices, different opinions of Chapel’s murder, events leading up to his momentuous decision to flee and the devastation wrought upon old Whitechapel as the basis of his world crashes down around him, leaving him broken.