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The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

March 30, 2020

The Water Dancer
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Random House, 2019.

5 stars

A brilliant historical novel about slavery and escape by a young African American man writing in the tradition of Toni Morrison.

The Water Dancer is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel , but he has already achieved attention for his non-fictional books about his experiences as a black man and his regular, more varied, articles in the Atlantic Monthly.  He is a recipient of a MacArthur Award and appears regularly in the media.  Born in New York City, he attended school for gifted students before attending Howard University where his father, a former Black Panther, worked as librarian.

Coates writing is simple and a joy to read.  It reminds me of how mundane most of what I read really is. He combines a sheer skill with words with sensitive insights.  Detailed and precise, it is often lyric al and beautiful.  Coates is capable of conveying both joy and inexplicable suffering. With a handful of exceptions, his characters are well-developed and understandable.  Especially notable is his depiction of strong women and their struggles to maintain their identity in slavery and romance.

The Water Dancer is narrated by Hiram Walker, a slave who comes of age in the book.  Hiram is the son of a slave woman and her white master, a man whom Hiram refers to consistently as his father although he not treated as a son.  His mother has been sold away too early in his life to remember her, and he is raised by a grim, older woman in the slave community.  His intelligence and phenomenal memory is recognized early, and he is moved to “his father’s house.”  Already angry about his enslavement, he tries to run away and gets “drafted” by a militant group fighting slavery.  After a time among freed blacks in Philadelphia, he returns to unfinished business back in Virginia.

Part of the plot, and why Hiram is valued by different characters, is because he has superhuman power.  This power is vague magical realism, but the specific ability to move one’s self and others across long distances.  African who walked, or flew, from the shores of America back to Africa were said to have such powers as did Harriet Tubman, the only historical character in The Water Dancer.  This was a difficult and demanding power, and Hiram was slow to understand and learn to use it.

As an historian, I was amazed by the way in which Coates created a picture of slavery in The Water Dancer which brings together the best accounts of scholars and slave narrators about the institution and those held by its bonds.  He must have read deeply in the literature of ex-slaves and applied his own sensitivity as a contemporary black man to display why freedom was such a critical drive for slaves.

I found Coates’s depiction of those violently opposed to slavery more complex and troubling. Here he departs from the myth and historical reality of the underground railroad where ordinary people assisted refugees and gave them food and shelter.  Instead he reveals an uglier picture of a hierarchical organization willing to cause suffering even among its own and demanding absolute obedience.  The tensions within the group are evident as blacks fight against blacks. Here Coates seems to be revealing his views about the need for those fighting for justice to be willing to be “dirty and not pure,” part of his own alliance with Malcom X’s readiness to use violence in contrast to Martin Luther King’s non-violence resistance.

In Philadelphia, however, Hiram finds a new family of freemen and women able to love each other and act for them.  He returns to Virginia, making his peace with working at the edges of the conformity and violence of the Underground.

Slave Dancer is an important novel, not just for blacks and those interested in what slavery was like in America.   It has implications for those of us who experience less literal forms of slavery and for the questions of using our past for both good and evil.  Most of all, Coates understands, and writes about, the need for stories and remembering for all of us.

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