Themes (Similarities and Differences)
We’ll be applying the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy from LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparative and at how ideas are developed in similar or different thematic directions in these texts. CONVERGENT ideas lead to similar conclusions and messages, while DIVERGENT ideas take us to different conclusions. If you’d like to learn more about this strategy which can help you build more insightful discussions of the text by finding unique points of comparison, then I’d recommend you check out the LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparative study guide. In the meantime, let’s start with some CONVERGENT ideas.
Power, Race and Oppression
In both texts, we see racial systems that take power away from Bla(c)k people. In the play, settler-colonialism is a big one. It’s depicted as a home invasion, a ship taking up a whole harbour, and as a process of devaluing land and ignoring its custodians. This trickles into contemporary institutions (widely understood patterns, rules or structures within society) which perpetuate these dynamics of race and power, such as the police and the media. Oppression is similarly maintained in The Longest Memory, where physical violence, and even just the threat of possible physical violence, is used to enslave African Americans. Plus, all of this racial violence was justified by the socio-economic interests of enslavers. Both texts see Bla(c)k people disempowered by a range of white institutions.
Family and Community
On the other hand, family and the wider community are depicted as a galvanising or healing force in both texts. In The 7 Stages of Grieving, we see how death can bring together entire communities to commiserate, dance and mourn collectively, drawing on one another’s strength. Depictions of families in projections of photographs also outline how joy and solidarity can be drawn from community. In the novel, family ties are also important. Whitechapel and Cook build a committed relationship to one another; she even says, “he proves he loves me every day.” At the same time, Cook also provides her unconditional love and support to Chapel, whose education and eventual relationship with Lydia are facilitated by her.
Memory and Grief
Both texts show how memory and grief are significant burdens for Bla(c)k people and operate at multiple dimensions. The play is sort of built around the five stages of grief but demonstrates how First Nations grief isn’t neat or linear. It can go from highly expressive to numb in moments. It also has roots in Australia’s genocidal history such that the death of any First Nations person—but especially elders—is felt widely. In The Longest Memory, there’s a physical dimension to Whitechapel’s grief. He earns the name “Sour-face” because of the worry lines that developed after Chapel’s death. He feels extremely guilty and only after Chapel dies does he realise why Chapel disagreed with him so stubbornly in life. He actually learned the tough lesson that he’d been hoping to teach Chapel.
What about divergent ideas? Let’s break down two now.
Struggle and Resistance
Both texts offer ideas about what the fight against racism might look like, but at times these ideas are more different than similar. In The 7 Stages of Grieving, the main struggle is to be heard and understood. In the play and in real life even, we can see how the media is stacked against First Nations peoples, so their fight is about cutting through the bias and making sure they are fairly represented. In The Longest Memory, the fight against slavery is portrayed quite differently. In a scenario where physical violence was used the way it was in order to oppress, self-emancipation was seen by many as the only path out. Enslaved workers weren’t fighting to be heard, they were fighting to survive. It’s also worth bearing in mind the history of abolition, which happened in Northern states first. This gave them a destination, as well as hope.
The Generation Gap
The other thing that the texts diverge on is the relationship between parents and children. In the play, family is consistently shown to provide support and community. As the woman speaks about her father and brother, the unconditional love and support between them is palpable. However, the novel depicts a bit more conflict— Whitechapel argued with Chapel based on his lived experience, and the many young people he had seen be killed for trying to free themselves. However, Chapel was far more committed to freedom than to survival. There isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer either way, but this definitely isn’t a tension that we see in the play.
Close Scene Analysis
Let’s go to Scene 14 of the play—this should be the report of Daniel Yocke’s death in police custody. The woman recounts his death in a factual, impersonal style as if reading a court report. She describes how the police pursued and arrested Yocke after he went out drinking with a group of friends, and how he was detained and taken to the watchhouse. He arrives without a pulse, but the report doesn’t go into the detail of how that happened between his arrest and his arrival. The woman breaks into bursts of emotion toward the end of the scene.
While most of the play deals with issues that are universal and timeless for First Nations peoples, this scene looks at a specific real event. However, this doesn’t mean that this scene isn’t timeless—First Nations deaths in custody are still a major issue for which no police officer has been held legally accountable for—but this scene chooses just one example out of several hundred.
The emotionally detached tone makes the situation feel serious, but in a way, that distances us and the woman from the brutality and the violence of what must’ve happened. After all, how exactly was Yocke dead upon arriving at the watchhouse? How badly must the police have mishandled him for that to have happened? Along the way, there are little outbursts of emotion—The little outburst of “people called him Boonie!”—and these remind us that the detachment belies the true significance of what happened—the needless loss of yet another Aboriginal person’s life.
This has been such a persistent problem in our history—this scene happened in 1993, but even in 2020 we’re still dealing with the same problem. The institution of policing has been unaccountable and violent for decades, at least, and something desperately needs to change.
Let’s go to the novel now and look at Chapter 6: Plantation Owners.
In this chapter, Mr Whitechapel is talking to his peers about Chapel’s death in this clubhouse that his father had built for his own peers. Mr Whitechapel is initially nervous that they’ll make fun of him, and they kind of do—they point out how hypocritical it is for him to think that he can treat the people he’s enslaved with humanity, and to stick to this argument even after Chapel had been whipped to death. At some point in this banter, he realises this physical violence is unjust and starts proposing “another way to organise the economy” that isn’t slavery, but this draws even more mockery. He ultimately leaves feeling a little more convinced by the perspectives of his peers.
What does this chapter tell us, and how is it similar to the scene from the play?
Well, in both scenes, white men get away with murdering a Black man, and it comes down to socio-economic and institutional power. In this chapter, Mr Whitechapel and his fellow enslavers all inherit significant wealth and extremely prejudiced attitudes from their fathers, and this creates not only pressure but also a financial incentive, to conform to the system of slavery. He touches on the possibility of abolition, but this is seen as impossible—certainly, none of these men want to lose their power.
Looking more closely at this chapter, we also see how Mr Whitechapel is exactly the hypocrite that everybody says he is—it’s ridiculous for him to pretend he’s treating Black people fairly when they are dying under his watch. He says he’s feeding enslaved workers adequately and treating them with respect, but none of this is actually going to protect them from violence, and none of this is going to level the playing field so that white enslavers are held accountable. Ultimately, Mr Whitechapel isn’t seriously interested in making substantive changes to slavery in the name of morality; he is simply trying to maintain face.
I’ve chosen these two scenes because they both illustrate the dynamics of race and power which pervade both texts, but mightn’t be the first ones that come to mind as a pair that you can analyse together.
Sample Essay Topics
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. If you're interested in reading a 50 study scorer's completed essays based off these 4 essay topics, along with annotations so you can understand his thinking process, then I would highly recommend checking out LSG's Killer Comparative Guide: 7 Stages of Grieving and The Longest Memory.
1. Compare the ways in which the two texts explore the possibility of social change.
2. How do The 7 Stages of Grieving and The Longest Memory present the emotional pain of racism?
3. What do Aunty Grace and Chapel illustrate about the complexities of belonging to a racial minority?
4. Compare how the narrative structures of The 7 Stages of Grieving and The Longest Memory enhance their storytelling effect.
5. “People called him Boonie! He was known as Boonie…” (The 7 Stages of Grieving)
6. “I literally saw the boy surrender to that whip …” (The Longest Memory)
Compare how the two texts explore innocence.