The Fire This Time “Lonely in America” by Wendy S. Walters Summary
by Jesmyn Ward

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Fire This Time Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“Lonely in America” by Wendy S. Walters Summary

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 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 entire section is 1,555 words.)