The Water Dancer: A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Content warning: Depictions of violence, references to sexual assault
The Water Dancer (2019, 416 pages) is the debut novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an American author, who is well-known for his nonfiction writing and his work as a journalist for The Atlantic. Told from the perspective of the novel’s protagonist, Hiram (Hi) Walker, The Water Dancer is a slave narrative intermixed with magical realism. The novel follows Hi from when he is about 12 years old and is enslaved on his white father’s declining tobacco plantation in Virginia to when he is an adult and begins working with the Underground Railroad. When we first meet Hi in the novel, we learn two things about him. First, he has a photographic memory, yet he is unable to remember his mother, who was sold by his father years before. Second, we learn that Hi has a supernatural gift, called Conduction where he can transport himself and others using the power of memory and water. These gifts prove to be very useful to Hi at important periods of his life and ultimately leads him to connect with one of his heroes, Harriett Tubman, who also shares the gift of Conduction.
The Water Dancer starts with Hi recounting a carriage accident on a bridge, where he and his white half-brother, Maynard, are thrown into the river and Hi first uses his power of Conduction to transport himself away from danger but he is unable to help his brother, who drowns: “I would like to say that that I mourned right then, or took some manner of note. But I did not.” After this incident, Hi is unable to explain how he was able to escape certain death but it does ignite in him a new purpose: “I must get out”. Hi decides to run away with his love interest Sophia but after a shocking betrayal, they are separated and Hi finds himself among the members of the Underground Railroad. After being trained as an agent for the Underground, Hi makes it north to Philadelphia, where he connects with other free Blacks and meets Harriett Tubman, who teaches him how to effectively use his powers of Conduction to transport people out of slavery and into freedom.
One of the things that Coates does well in this novel is to show how deeply intertwined lives of the enslaved and the slave owners were on the plantation, yet how these two groups lived such drastically different lives: “the crushing weight of seeing how the Quality truly lived, in all their luxury and how much they really took from us.” As the son of the plantation owner, Hi is given the opportunity to work in the big house and become his white half-brother’s manservant instead of the back-breaking labor in the fields. However, as Hi approaches the big house on his first day, he comes to a sobering realization: “As I mounted each step, I felt the terrible logic of the Task, my Task, snap into place. It was not just that I would never be heir to even one inch of Lockless. And it was more than knowing I would never be a subscriber to the fruit of my own labor. It was also that my own natural wants must forever be bottled up, that I must live in fear of those wants, so that more than I must live in fear of the Quality, I must necessarily live in fear of myself.”
Another thing I liked about the Water Dancer is how Coates relates the unique horrors of slavery for Black women. With the character Thena (Hi’s adoptive mother), Coates describes the emotional trauma Black mothers experienced when they have their children sold or die young either due to the apathy or negligent of the plantation owner and how that trauma can live with women for the rest of their lives: “Even when she swung her broom at us, I sense the depth of that loss, her pain, a rage that she, unlike the rest of us, refused to secret away, and I found that rage to be true and correct.” In the character of Sophia, Hi’s love interest, we see the suffering of young attractive enslaved women who endure the trauma of sexual exploitation and concubinage to much older white men. As a woman, Sophia is enslaved in ways that Hi is not, because of her status as the sexual favorite of the owner of a neighboring plantation, she is not free to have a romantic relationship with Hi. Additionally, she runs the risk of having a child with the man who has enslaved her, further endangering her chances of having a happy life with Hi, who resents not being able to protect her from the man who sexually exploits her.
Despite its emotionally charged subject matter, the Water Dancer didn’t give me the anxiety that I feel whenever I read slave narratives. Coates accomplishes this difficult task with the help of a few interesting literacy choices, for example, Coates does not use the words “slave” or “master” to describe relationship between the enslaved and the slave owner. Instead, he uses the word “Tasked” to describe the enslaved, and “Quality” to describe the white plantation owners. When we discussed the Water Dancer in my book club, some group members argued that by using the neutral terms “Tasked” and “Quality” to describe slavery, Coates is minimizing a brutal, inhumane and barbaric system that robbed generations of Black people of their dignity and agency. Although I empathize with this assessment, as the descendant of enslaved people, I hate even reading the word “slave”. As a matter of fact, you will probably notice that I use the term enslaved to describe the forced labor of Black people, so for my own idiosyncratic reasons, I appreciated the use of the term “Tasked”. However, I find the term “Quality” to describe slave owners, distasteful because it gives the impression that the slave owners were inherently superior and not that their status rested on their ability to wield genocidal violence against those who opposed them. But in spite of his choice in terminology, Coates makes it clear where the Tasked and the Quality stood in pre-civil war plantation society: “the masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us….Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.”
Another interesting choice that Coates made was to attribute Harriett Tubman’s accomplishments in helping enslaved people escape to the North, to magic. Although Coates is not the first novelist to alter the historical facts of the Underground Railroad, most notably Colson Whitehead does the same in his novel The Underground Railroad, I did not like Coates decision to attribute the heroic actions of Harriett Tubman to magic. To me, it diminishes Tubman’s achievements and erases the truly captivating story of a true American heroine, and one of the few historical Black women most Americans know.
However, by far the most egregious liberty that Coates takes in this novel is in making Hi’s white father openly acknowledge Hi as his son. It is historical fact that slave owners sexually assaulted their female slaves and owing to the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem in South, children born to these unions took the status of the mother. However, the plantation owners had no qualms about selling their own mixed-race children into slavery. Knowing these two facts, it would have been exceeding rare for white owners to openly acknowledge their mixed-race children, much less allow them to be educated, which was illegal under the Slave Codes. Basically, I found it very irritating that Hi would repeatedly refer to the man who sexually assaulted his mother, sold her and enslaved him as his father in the narrative.
Readers of the Water Dancer will recognize many similarities to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, for instance, both books follow orphaned protagonists who escape slavery via the Underground Railroad and seek safety in the North. However, I find that Whitehead’s Underground Railroad has more multidimensional characters (with the notable exception of Thena in the Water Dancer) and the story is more complex and layered than the Water Dancer. Part of the reason I find the Underground Railroad a more satisfying read than the Water Dancer is because former relies a lot less on the supernatural to motivate the plot. For example, in both novels the protagonists have largely, if not completely, forgotten their mothers and struggle to connect with their past and their ancestors. In the case of the Underground Railroad, the protagonist finds a connection to her past through her protection of a piece of land owned and cultivated by two generations of women in her family. In contrast, Hi finds a connection to his past through the memories of his mother, which helps power his ability to perform Conduction. In other words, magical realism plays a secondary role in the Underground Railroad, whereas in the Water Dancer, the supernatural is given primacy in the development of both the plot and its main character.
Overall, I give the Water Dancer 3 out of 5 stars because although it provides a fairly nuanced commentary of slavery: “For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gates, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages”; the Water Dancer falls short when it depicts the central interpersonal relationship of the novel, that of Hi and his father. FInally, the novel’s use of the supernatural as a major plot device detracts from the real and amazing story of the historical Underground Railroad and the stories of those who were involved in it.