The Longest Memory shows how the injustice of slavery can trap both the slaves and their owners in a web of cruelty, destruction of relationships and death. This is indicated by the various different characters in the story and their diverse points of view, namely, the black slaves, Whitechapel, Cook and Chapel to their white captors Mr. Whitechapel, Sanders Senior and Junior, and Lydia. Throughout the novel, there is a continuous theme that the black slaves are bound and are unable to escape and pursue their dreams.
The slaves on the Southern Virginian plantation were treated differently from the rest of the society, simply because they were black. As Sanders Senior asserts,” we are different from slaves in intelligence and human standing before God”. The white captor’s beliefs gave them enough reason to treat the black slaves without any respect, as then, black slaves were destined for degradation of society, and were not given any identity or rights. They were beaten, whipped and made to endure tortures such as when an owner “tried to shoot an apple from the head of the slave at some twenty paces”, and if the slave tried to run away, he would be shot.
Slavery was also internalised, which meant that the slaves were completely owned and controlled by the plantation owners. At one point, Whitechapel states that “freedom is death”, and this is exemplified through Chapel’s death, when he attempts to escape the plantation to pursue his love for Lydia.
Slaves were not even allowed to have proper names, and were given names in accordance to their job in the plantation, such as ‘Cook’. Also Whitechapel was named after his owner Mr. Whitechapel. This further shows the loss of identity the black slaves experienced. Moreover, the black slaves were unable to become any higher in society. This was shown when Chapel learns how to read and write, with the help of Lydia, Chapel tells Lydia, that she has “done him the gravest injustice” as he probably cannot use these skills for anything.
Even love cannot overcome the trapped and constrained nature of the system. Lydia and Chapel fell deeply in love, in the novel, but could not fully develop their relationship because of the restrictions of the white people, and their value on attachment with blacks.
White people are also held captive by the running slaver. As Mr Whitechapel remarks to Sanders Junior, “what began as a single thread has, over the generations, woven itself into a prodigious carpet that cannot be unwoven. This is true for both the slave and their owners. Sanders Senior’ who was the overseer hopes that his son will not become one as well, but unfortunately his dream is not realised and Sanders Junior too become the overseer. Mr. Whitechapel also struggles as a plantation owner, as he is in a dilemma ah he sees himself as a faithful Christian and a good man.
He is split between being fair and just in treating the slaves, to conforming them with the other plantation owners who mock him with jibes like “Here is the man with the whip in his hand. Three cheers. Hip Hip…Hooray! Well done!” after Chapel’s death because of the whipping. Furthermore, leaving the plantation is not an option for him, because it might go to ruin if he is not there, and people might think he is a loser and cannot face reality.
The Longest Memory explores how both captors and captives can be shackled by the running of a system like slavery. As the novel concludes, with the idea that slavery enslaves everybody that is involved with it, because both master and slave become dehumanised by it. Therefore, this inhuman system, should be forgotten, as “memory is pain trying to resurrect itself.”