Updated: Feb 14, 2020
… but weren’t most negros (who built this country with their bare hands) magical during this time period?
Ta-Nehisi Coates begins The Water Dancer with a flashback of the main protagonist and narrator, Hiram Walker, drowning in a river while watching visions of his mother doing an African folk style of dance that readers would later come to learn as Water Dancing. Hiram, an enslaved and gifted young man from a plantation in Virginia, is owned by his white father. He has no other blood relatives aside from his half brother and master, Maynard, who drowns in that river that day too. But Hiram does not drown. Hiram, who is a descendant of a famous enslaved woman named Santi Bess believed to have used powers of teleportation to return herself and others back to Africa, unknowingly uses these same powers he has inherited to save himself. From a young age, Hiram is recognizably gifted with a powerful ability to remember everything that he encounters, except for his mother, who was sold away when he was 9. Narrated in the same style as most first person slave narratives and biographies, The Water Dancer follows Hiram’s journey as a young man in bondage with an incredible gift navigating his way through the importance of family, the meaning of love, his memories, and his freedom, all under the complexities of life in antebellum south.
Coates gives readers a new vocabulary by addressing enslaved persons as the ‘Tasked’, slave owners and masters as the ‘Quality’, and low class and poor whites as the ‘Low’. We spend a necessary amount of time in the mind of Hiram analyzing the complex psychology and relationships of the Tasked, the Quality, and the Low. What may be one of the main themes and takeaways from this portion of the book is that white slave owners, and racist white people today, created and lived in an alternate reality shrouded in cognitive dissonance about morality and purity. A people who, if left to their own devices to successfully tend to and grow their own crop, or cook their own food, or bathe and clothe their own children would fail and perish, were the controlling class of the nation.
“The masters could not bring water to boil, harness to horse or strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them. We had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.”
The Quality were not of quality at all – not in spirit, or in morality, or in intelligence, as pointed out by Hiram through various musings throughout the book. It’s musings like these that eventually land our protagonist as an agent on the Underground railroad after a failed attempt at escaping the "never ending Task". Hiram’s incredible memory proves to be useful to the Underground, but what he and readers wait with anticipation to figure out is just how his ability of teleportation -- known as conduction -- works. While navigating adventures as both an enslaved man and a free agent, his power and his understanding of it unravels throughout the story.
The Water Dancer is a unique and imaginative telling of the horrors of slavery that is infused with magical realism, and is at its core a story about the importance of memory. Harriet Tubman (commonly referred to as Moses), who Hiram briefly meets and works with while on the Underground, is also known to have the supernatural power of conduction in the book. It’s through encounters with people like Harriet, and other agents fighting to free their enslaved loved ones, that Hiram finally learns how to harness his own power of conduction – through his memory. And this is the beauty of the story. Memory is the way to freedom.
“For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is the bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
The Water Dancer is a metaphor of the importance of remembering our history and telling our stories as a means of survival. It’s through our memories, no matter how painful they may be that we understand who we are and have the potential to free ourselves. And this is perhaps why I enjoyed this read so much. I echo the same sentiments in my everyday life. I’m the type of person who strongly urges people, especially Black people, to read and watch the painful stories that we create for ourselves. There is power in knowing who you are and where you’ve come from. We honor our ancestors and ourselves by consuming these stories. When we choose not to remember, as Hiram did by suppressing the painful memory of his mother, we lose a part of us. We lose some of our power. For enslaved people, remembering through stories, song, and dance, like water dancing, acted as a means of survival by creating a metaphorical portal back home where there was freedom. Coates takes this idea and makes it literal in The Water Dancer.
“There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us.”
I admire Coates’ ability to write a story centered during such a dark time in history with a relative lightness. Everything about the prose, including the choice of his words to describe slaves, allowed me as a reader to focus a little more on Hiram’s coming of age character development and the surrounding sub-plots. The book, which is written beautifully in an almost poetic way, is an appropriate read for both adolescents and adults. While this review focuses primarily on the theme of memory and the magical negro, Coates also weaves in many important topics, namely: white liberalism, the souls of white folks, patriarchy during slavery, giving agency to Black enslaved women, motherhood in slavery (re: Beloved), PTSD and handling freedom, and a questioning of what true freedom means, among other things. Any student could write a paper investigating any of these topics after reading this book. For me, The Water Dancer inspired a lot of interesting and deep conversations about hard topics without necessarily being a visually difficult read like some others of the same topic. For this reason, I rate the book a 3.5/5. It’s not necessarily my favorite book about slavery but it could be someone else’s and I would respect it. If asked if I recommend this book, I'd definitely say YES.
Some of my favorite quotes:
On white people hating what they love and being infatuated with the Black experience and culture (sound familiar?)
“But these fools, these Jeffersons, these Madisons, these Walkers, all dazzled by theory, well I am convinced that the most degraded field hand, on the most miserable plot is Mississippi, knew more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosphe. And the lords and ladies of our contry know this. This is why they are in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself. Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”
On white agents (liberals) and not ever really knowing if you can trust their allyship because it might probably just be rooted in a deeper ego
“All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetuated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same.”
On what freedom looked like to a Black woman – freedom from racism AND patriarchy
“..I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand? Aint no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored.”
Have you read this one? What did you think? Do you agree or disagree with my rating?