Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer was his fictional debut which told the story of Hiram, a young enslaved boy. Following the sale of his mother, Hiram finds himself struggling to remember her despite having a remarkable memory. With his craving for freedom and gifted memory, Hiram comes to the attention of the Underground, a mysterious network that helps enslaved people escape to freedom.
There’s a lot of action and excitement in The Water Dancer but ultimately it’s a book about family. It discusses the impact of slavery tearing families apart and how the preservation of life stories and experiences through oral history help to bring families together and move us forward as individuals.
I don’t dig boats beyond ferries and dislike open water where land is out of sight. So when The Water Dancer started with Coates’s description of Hiram being in a body of water and struggling to save his life it made me feel like I was in the water with him. I felt the terror of the first chapter but also noticed very early that the writing was incredibly beautiful. Coates has a way with words and there’s also a special urgency and energy to his writing.
It was an interesting perspective to read about the experience of having a brother who is also your owner. And the comforts and advantages in your life make you unfit to avoid death. Imagine being enslaved and even when facing death having the burden of putting the life of your master at equal if not greater priority of trying to save your own life.
It is mentioned early in The Water Dancer that Hiram was nine years old when his mother was taken and sold away. I read that part but somehow forgot about Hiram’s age and through reading the rest of the story thought he was a lot younger at the time they were separated so I didn’t think much about him forgetting details about his mother. But later realizing that he was nine years old at the time of their separation put things in perspective.
I felt deeply for this child losing his mother in such a manner. Coates’s affinity with words helped me to imagine the devastation of losing a parent to slavery. And then to live with the aftermath of being on your own at such a young age. Families are broken up but the survival of the children offers some insight into how communities of enslaved Black people might have looked out for each other. The community functions as an extended family despite not having actual connections by blood or marriage.
When I was a child, I had a very vivid dream about my mother dying and it became one of my greatest fears as a kid. Now as an adult I still see the loss of a parent during childhood as being unfair and difficult. I’ve read books about slavery but still find it difficult to fathom the idea of losing a parent not to death but a sale. The loss of a parent is the loss of a parent but breaking up a family for money is a special brand of heinous inhumanity.
I could never imagine willingly walking away from my child. But I also don’t understand how you can live with the idea of holding any child in bondage, let alone your child. What kind of mental gymnastics would you have to go through to rationalize something like that in your mind? And then as a child to know that someone owns you and that person is also your father? If your father is your first primary example of manhood how would being owned by your father affect you as a young man and your definition of manhood?
How did parents explain to their children that for no other reason beyond the circumstances of birth they were owned by someone? That they will have to work and struggle for the benefit of others for whom a privileged life has been simply a matter of luck. For example, Hiram’s half-brother Maynard is a waste of opportunity because so much is given to him without being earned or him being held accountable so he takes his good fortune for granted.
Hiram’s father, Howell, for the most part, isn’t shown as being violent or ill-tempered so he’s kind of easy to ignore. But there are phrases and remarks that he utters throughout The Water Dancer that I found irksome. Maynard is a fool because his father doesn’t require him to operate as though he has any sense. But Howell has an unrealistic image of Maynard while acknowledging that the boy is a lost cause. I feel like he knew the truth about Maynard’s incompetence but was in denial because it meant there was no real future for his acknowledged family line and this was primarily his fault because of the way he raised Maynard. There’s one conversation in particular where Howell tells Hiram that he’ll have to become his brother’s servant and look after him. This is because Howell doesn’t believe Maynard is capable of looking after himself which is bad enough on its own but he then goes on to tell Hiram that he should consider this an honor.
Before showing his talent for memory, Hiram was mostly ignored by his father. But once his intelligence became apparent his father essentially consigned him to live his life in service of his brother. Given his status as a slave, the question isn’t even asked of what if anything Hiram might want to do with his life. And as an intelligent young man with many talents and dreams this is stifling.
I’ve read that working in the field was physically harder than in the house but it allowed some distance and little moments of freedom. While being in the house meant you were always under the watchful eye of the slave owner and/or mistress of the house. Hiram doesn’t initially understand this and wanting a way out of the slave quarters he comes up with a plan to move closer to the big house. But when he gets there he comes to realize that things aren’t all they seem and living in proximity to his so-called family won’t necessarily offer the escape he is seeking.
In his desperation to escape the crushing limitations of slavery Hiram initially takes pride and interest in his father’s family and plantation. He believes that if he can show his father his intelligence and capabilities it might change the way he sees him. If he can turn things around it might make life better for him and the other enslaved people on the plantation. With the warnings from other people close to him, I viewed Hiram’s plans for the plantation as a lost cause but understood that it gave him hope and a sense of purpose.
Slavery is referred to as the “Task” while enslaved people are “the Tasked” and middle to upper-class White people are referred to as “the Quality”. Poor or lower-class people are referred to as “Low” though it’s mostly used to describe lower-class White people. White men involved in bounty hunting are called “Ryland’s hounds” based on the men that work at a local jail for enslaved people. It’s easy enough to pick up on what’s meant by the phrases while reading but I didn’t get the point of using variations of the term “task” instead of “slavery” as “task” seemed a bit sanitized.
There’s some commentary on class structure primarily within the White society. Though there is also some brief discussion of class differences between the enslaved and free of the South as well as the poor and comfortable Black people of the North. Coates points out that the Quality holds down both the Tasked and Low Whites. But instead of Low Whites joining with the Tasked in solidarity to pursue equal opportunities Low Whites joined the slavery system for crumbs from the pie and the opportunity to look down on others in the same vein that the Quality looks down on them.
Throughout The Water Dancer there are instances of things appearing calm and as they should be on the surface while chaos and uncertainty are lurking beneath. For example, there’s a dinner party fairly early on in the book that I found to be quite interesting. In reading about high society in general and the antebellum South in particular there’s a recurring theme of a veneer of genteel that masks characters’ true personality. The people who make huge shows of appearing prim-and-proper often reveal themselves to be incredibly cruel and vulgar. With the consumption of enough alcohol or in the presence of people they deem unimportant they let their masks drop and show their true selves.
Several stories and genres are going on within The Water Dancer. There’s romance as well as familial love but there’s also a bit of very old school espionage with spies and agents. There’s also a bit of the supernatural or fantasy/magic but somehow it all works together. Usually, I’m not a fan of romance or fantasy as they tend to make things either too overly dramatic or problems are overcome too conveniently but it didn’t bother me too much here.
It is eye-opening when you consider why slaves were kept from reading or any other endeavors that might motivate them to the desire for more. Working in bondage was not enough to break the spirit of the enslaved. And to have slaves see everything around them but ignore their internal desires to possess something for themselves required systems to be put in place to temper those desires. Slaves had to be made to feel and believe it in their hearts that there was nothing else beyond their everyday toil. The physical aspect of slavery would have been difficult but the mental strain would have been crushing.
Although the major female characters moved in and out of the story I still appreciated their presence. Hiram’s experiences offered some perspective on what it might have been like to come of age as a young Black man during slavery when your father owns you. Georgie Parks and the White brothers of Philadelphia offer different perspectives on being free men with families and trying to get them out of bondage or protect them from it. With Thena, Sophia, and Hiram’s mother Rose, we get some insight into what slavery might have been like for enslaved women. In the case of Sofia being subjugated not just because of her race but also because of her gender and her desire to obtain freedom from both.
There’s the uncomfortable conversation of being a man in love with a woman who given the time has no authority over her own body due to both race and gender. Being a Black man unable to protect his children from the auction block or his wife/sweetheart from a slave owner’s advances. If manhood is defined within society as being a provider and protector what does it mean if the society you live in prevents you from doing either? If womanhood is defined as being chaste and tending to the family what does it mean if both can be snatched away in a moment based on someone else’s whim?
Hiram is observant but fairly quiet and for whatever reason, this makes people comfortable talking to him about things they probably wouldn’t tell most other people. From these exchanges we get bits and pieces in the form of short stories about the various characters he meets. But as Hiram sees more of the world he comes to realize that he can build relationships and inspire trust by opening himself up to other people.
History books can lead you down rabbit holes. The Water Dancer in particular sprinkles bits of historical fact throughout which drew me in and made me want to learn more. Granted not everything is fact-based as there are fictional bits with regards to places and people that are used for creative reasons. But the mixing of fact with fiction helps things to flow here.
When Hiram made contact with abolitionists and conductors from the Underground I realized that the White brothers were based on William and Peter Still. I got a little bit excited about that tidbit as I’d recently researched William Still for a Black History Short so it was interesting to see an adaptation of his story. I also enjoyed the brief appearances of Harriet Tubman and the way that she was humanized through the telling of anecdotes from her true personal history.
The Water Dancer balances the idea of obtaining freedom at any cost versus being free while your loved ones are still in bondage. Being faced with the threat of being sold away and most likely never seeing your family again. Versus risking your life to run away to preserve the possibility of arranging to be reunited with your loved ones. Even amid seemingly eternal suffering people find love in different forms and it gives them hope and the drive to keep going.
Usually, I don’t like the use of magic or supernatural forces in books because far too often they’re used as lazy plot devices to help characters conveniently overcome obstacles. It’s the one part of the book that I side-eyed but I see that as my personal bias rather than a shortcoming of the book. Yet, I still liked that it wasn’t hocus pocus magic. Instead, the people who possess this power use it to reconnect with loved ones and to guide themselves to safety.
People sometimes push aside painful memories as a way of coping so they can move forward in life. Dealing with those painful memories means blocking them out to where eventually they’re so buried that you forget they even existed. And that’s fine for some people but for others burying those memories causes more problems for them in the long term by preventing them from reaching their full potential.
There’s a message here that the painful and difficult moments from our lives help to shape who we are. And then in reconnecting with those moments and using them as motivation to achieve our goals and desires in life we take power from them. Instead of these moments controlling us or taking over our lives we instead take control of them and use them for our betterment. There’s a quote in The Water Dancer that I think sums it up perfectly:
There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us.
I’ve seen and heard interviews and commentary from various entertainers as well as regular people who have expressed they are tired of stories about slaves and/or slavery. I agree with the perspective that we need a wider array of stories to be told about the Black experience. But I disagree with the idea of being tired of stories about slavery or the struggle for equality and justice for Black people in general.
We have a very complex history and it’s not always told honestly or openly. I find the stories of Black people fighting to keep their families and communities together while at the same time doing what they could to fight back against efforts to destroy them to be incredibly inspiring. How do you hear stories of people pressing on despite the obstacles and not feel motivated to push back against the difficulties of your own life?
This is the second book I’ve read that puts a creative spin on the Underground Railroad. The other book was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which I also enjoyed. But I liked how Coates wove tidbits about historical figures into the story as well as how he used the decay of this fictional Virginia County to discuss the importance of land and bodies to maintaining wealth in slave-holding states. I also love thrillers and espionage so having codes, disguises, extraction strategies, and secret agents captured my attention.
I’d previously heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates but this was the first book of his that I read and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Sometimes I hold off when books or movies are seemingly everywhere and everyone is talking about them because often they end up being over-hyped. But that’s not the case here. I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend reading The Water Dancer.
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- The Underground Railroad [Book Review]
- William Still
- Henry Highland Garnet
- Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
- Josiah Henson
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