The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates


In Coates’ Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross I learned that in addition to his non-fiction work, he has authored Black Panther Marvel Comics, a series which began in 1966. A character with superpowers comes naturally to him and an action-filled story is to be expected. So for me the pace was exhausting, even with the reflections and introspection of Hiram, the narrator. The author created some of his own terms; the enslaved are “Tasked” people, “Quality” are the owners of enslaved people, and the Low, are the lower order of whites. The term for selling Tasked people south is being sent Natchez-way.

Hiram’s father was the head of the household and he directed his smart enslaved son to care for Maynard, the arrogant, useless one who would inherit the plantation. We first meet Hiram as he tells about the bridge that mysteriously “fell away” so that he and Maynard were suddenly in the river. Hiram survives in the first instance of the power that he experiences while Maynard does not. His father’s estate Lockless is in Virginia and the story begins in a time several generations after the founding fathers lived as the fortunes of the tobacco growers are waning because of the depletion of the soil.

Hiram’s adventures include escape that takes him into a world of people at war with slavery, the Underground. He learns to play a useful role with them and comes to understand that he, and they, are not free. His instructors in this work were all Quality or Low, no Tasking men. He regarded them as zealots and distinguished between their goals and his:  they were at war against the Task, while he was at war for those who were Tasked.

He is sent north and has an exhilarating time in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, experiencing a new way of being. In all the situations Hiram experiences, his understanding of the destructiveness of slavery deepens and he reflects on these revelations. In his travels he meets “Moses,” Harriet Tubman, and she plays a role helping him come to understand his power of Conduction. As it happens, I am listening to a biography of Frederick Douglass, and it was William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist with whom Douglass was allied until he wasn’t, who dubbed her Moses.

In one role Hiram had in the Underground, he forged documents using written materials that enabled him to write day-passes, letters of introductions, and even free papers signed by a master. To do this he immersed himself in their lives and Hiram says,

I was sometimes unsure of where I ended and where the Taskmaster began. I knew them. I knew their children, their wives, their enemies. The humanity wounded me, for here too were the bonds of family, and here too were young lovers overrun by the rituals of courting, and here too lay a sorrow, a grim understanding of the sin of the Task. And here too were fears that in the last calculation they too were slaves to some Power, some God, some Demon of the old world, which they had unknowingly unleashed upon the new.

Hiram understands his power comes from memories, some of which are not accessible to him. Finding the key to those memories is the path to making his power predictably available to him.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer, One World (Random House), 2019, 407 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon (I read the kindle version).

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