Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
Apart from being African American and knowing that her ancestors were enslaved, Walters has never thought much about slavery, primarily because it’s so hard to reconcile with her modern sense of self. She’s sure that because she possesses only a fraction of her enslaved ancestors’ fortitude, she would not have survived the hardships they endured. Another reason why slavery is so hard to conceive of is that it has always seemed to Walters, as it does to many Americans, that slavery was exclusively a Southern institution, far away from Walters’s New England backyard.
In the winter of 2006, Walters isn’t working her regular job and is depressed, lonely, and hypochondriacal. She tries to distract herself by following celebrity gossip yet still obsessively follows the news of war and suffering, hoping she’ll find purpose in the stories of struggle. It is with this motive that Walters goes to New Orleans in January, to help her great-aunt Louise sift through the remains of her storm-ravaged home in the months after Hurricane Katrina has faded from the national headlines.
When Walters arrives in New Orleans, the conditions she encounters are bracing, with Aunt Lou’s house and possessions damaged beyond repair. With the cemeteries flooded by the storm and coffins washing up around the city, Walters convinces her family to take her to check on the family crypt at Holt Cemetery, one of the city’s segregation-era Black graveyards. Compared to a visit ten years earlier, when the grounds and headstones were poorly kept, there is now new grass, and more graves are marked with festive and artistic decorations. And in comparison to other Black cemeteries in the city, Holt seems to have weathered the storm fairly well. Although the exact location of the family crypt has been unknown to the family since their great-grandmother died in 1969 and the grave marker was stolen, Walters leaves flowers and a note where she believes the site to be.
Walters returns to her home in Providence, Rhode Island, feeling even worse than she had before going to New Orleans, and still without the sense of purpose she was seeking. One day she hears a report on the local news radio about the 2003 discovery of a gravesite in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, containing the remains of thirteen people, four of whom had been identified as having African ancestry and who had probably been slaves. With the possibility of many more bodies buried at the site, the town authorities were considering the best way to proceed with the excavation while maintaining proper respect for the remains. In investigating the practice of slavery in New England, Walters finds the purpose she needs.
Walters drives to Portsmouth in the dead of winter and follows the signs for the museum that she remembers from the news story she heard. There, she joins a tour group led by a docent named Charles, who first takes them across the street to the town’s original 1630 settlement to explain its founding. Charles is knowledgeable, and Walters writes everything down, finding the details “comforting.” Because Portsmouth was Anglican and not Puritan, it was more diverse, with seventy-two Africans among its original inhabitants. Many of the town’s greatest fortunes, however, were either directly or indirectly made through the transatlantic slave trade, in which raw materials and finished goods were exchanged for kidnapped Africans.
While Charles uses the word “servant,” he never says the word “slave,” and also points out that the local Native American population was wiped out soon after European settlement. At the end of the tour, Walters asks if she can visit the graves she...
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heard about on the radio and is told that this is impossible, as the bodies have been reinterred and the site paved over. But Walters must see for herself and drives to the intersection, now marked with only a small plaque explaining that the original African cemetery located at the site in 1705 was “pushed” to the edge of town a century later, and houses were built over it. She leaves disillusioned but not outraged at the fact that such a significant historical monument was “neither green nor sacred,” understanding that the real estate on top of the grave site is considered more valuable than the bodies buried below. Even while standing on top of “dead Africans,” Walters is not as moved as she thinks she should be.
In Newport, Rhode Island, Walters attends a lecture about the effort to preserve the city’s largest African cemetery and meets the speakers, the Stokes, a married couple who have maintained the grounds and started a fund for their preservation. Because of the regional use of the euphemism “servant” for “slave,” Keith Stokes explains, people think that somehow life was easier as an enslaved person in New England than in the South—but slavery was just as despicable and dehumanizing an institution in the North. Walters reads in the Providence Journal that, like Portsmouth, Newport was a significant hub of the slave trade until the nineteenth century, and most of its grand summer houses were likely built by enslaved Africans and their descendants.
While searching for the graves of enslaved Africans in a Newport cemetery, Walters meets a woman who tells her that the blue stones on Newport’s Thames Street were ballast carried by Africans disembarking from slave ships. Walters calls the Newport Historical Society to verify the story, which the reference librarian claims is inaccurate. He also dismisses the Providence Journal’s claim that most of the Black people in colonial Newport were slaves, insisting that many were domestic servants and that, while Newport businessmen financed slave ships, the town was not a major hub of the slave trade.
Her experiences in Newport make Walters realize how little she understood about Black life in Portsmouth, so she returns to New Hampshire to walk the Black Heritage Trail, organized by a local teacher and historian. She ends the excursion by stopping at the public library to look for a copy of the archaeologist’s report from the African burial site, a sensitive local topic; the head reference librarian worries about the town being portrayed in a bad light. Walters copies the report, reminding herself that, even though Portsmouth is a charming town today, enslaved people suffered and died there.
Walters avoids reading the report throughout that summer and fall for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to her but, she thinks, are likely to do with the “intense discomfort” she felt when first held her copy of it in the library. In January, she returns to the Portsmouth library and makes a new copy, which she at last reads. Her essay describes the report in detail and confirms that the archaeologists recovered the partial remains of thirteen individuals, some of whose bones and teeth suggested they had participated in African rituals and cultural traditions.
Today, the city of Portsmouth is planning a monument to the African Burying Ground, while archaeologists are asking residents to consider closing part of the intersection, and some citizens are having their DNA tested to find out if they are descended from the people whose remains were recovered. Walters recalls that, because she wanted to keep the report from becoming lost among the papers on her desk, she initially kept it by her bed. Later, she began carrying it in her backpack, eventually becoming so “accustomed to its weight” that she no longer noticed it was there.
Like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in “The Weight,” Wendy Walters uncovers universal truths in deeply personal experiences, and the title of her essay, “Lonely in America,” makes it clear that much of the focus will be on the author’s emotional despondency. At the beginning of the essay, Walters also establishes that a central idea will be confronting and accepting painful realities as a means of “freedom” from “disappointment.” She begins by saying how remote her connection is to the experience of her enslaved ancestors, so the reader can infer that the essay’s narrative arc will provide experiences by which Walters will confront the “obvious” facts about slavery and arrive at a more personal understanding of the subject.
Throughout the essay, Walters expects to find some emotional release, a feeling of personal connection that constantly eludes her as she gathers and compares facts. It is only after reading the archaeologists’ report from Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground, which affirms the humanity and distinct identities of Africans to whom Walters could previously only relate in an abstract way, that she is able to reconcile herself to the truth of history and thus find a measure of release from its burden. As symbolized by the copy of the report in her bag, the weight of ancestral legacy is now bearable, and Walters has a new conception of that which is “obvious.” The metaphoric “weight” here is similar to that implied by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s title referencing James Baldwin’s influence.
Walters also depicts Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans’s Black communities in 2005 as framing the essay’s first encounter with what Ghansah terms “black death” in the city’s eroded, unmarked graveyards, an experience that foreshadows the author’s later visits to African gravesites in New England. Issues of legacy, ownership, names, and memory recur throughout Walters’s revealing encounters.