Review: “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The very real is met with the very fantastic in “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Although this is his first fictional novel, Coates is no stranger to the writing world. Beginning in journalism, he later authored a memoir that discussed growing up with his father, a former Black Panther. He then wrote a couple of the comic books for the now famous Black Panther series, which was published by Marvel Comics. With Coates already making a name for himself, you can’t help but wonder what awaits you in his spellbinding novel.
Quite frankly, it tackles the reality of slavery in the late 19th century. Opening with a scene that abruptly causes you to awaken and gasp for breath, it soon flashes back into the past of our protagonist, Hiram. The story follows Hiram, a young enslaved child born to Rose, a wonderful dancer, and the rich white male who owns the property and everyone on it. How different the lives of the slaves, called “the Tasked,” and the owners, or “the Quality,” are from each other is splattered across the pages. It’s not until Hiram is close to preteen age and after his mother is sold that his so-called father takes notice of him.
For Hi, as he’s dubbed, has talents like no other. With palpable anecdotes, Coates describes Hiram’s ability to not only see words, but to remember (almost) everything. Although the imaginary is fascinating, you never for a second forget the torturous life these slaves are living. Songs of sorrowful strength ring out from the fields: “When you get to heaven, say you remember me / Remember me and my fallen soul / Remember my poor and fallen soul.”
Soon, Hi is asked by his father to come up and work in the house rather than in the fields. He meets his brother, Maynard, who is nothing like him. Maynard has white skin and zero talents to account for, while Hiram is able to learn quickly and is mindful of his actions. Hi thinks of his father and wonders, “how wrong it must have felt to see the best of you emerge in this way, in the place you didn’t expect, indeed in the place your whole world depends on it never appearing.”
As Hi continues to grow and become a man, certain things do not go ignored. Thena, an old enslaved woman who Hi regards as a mother figure, had warned him that these whites were not his family, and he soon realizes that she may be right. As he is tasked to look after his brother and take him to “pleasure houses” and witness him making a fool of himself, Hi starts to indeed wake up from a slumber.
The beautiful Sophia lives in the big house as well, and Hi can’t seem to stay away. She belongs to Hi’s father’s brother, Nathaniel, and she likes it about as much as Hi likes looking after Maynard, perhaps worse. When Maynard meets a fate that he should have seen coming and Hiram miraculously survives due to an impossibly magical reason, he makes a decision.
With Sophia as his accomplice, they make a run for it. They’d heard of the Underground Railroad and thought that could be their way out of the hell they’d been living in in Virginia. Having faith in an old friend, Hi promises they’ll find a new life. But things don’t go quite as planned. Unfortunately, humiliation and violation ensue for our protagonist, and Sophia is surely lost in the fray. Thinking his days are numbered, Hi finds himself a part of a tortuous sport for some local low whites.
Suddenly, Hi awakens in a plush bed surrounded by none other than a woman he believed to be of the Quality. She reveals something. She is secretly a part of the Underground Railroad, and there is something special about Hiram that they’d like to discover. Hi meets this revelation with skepticism, yet can’t help but throw himself into the movement. Not knowing who to trust is a challenge, and while keeping certain things classified, he reiterates this for present-day readers: “We are not yet past a time when scores are settled and vengeance sought, so many of us must, even in this time, remain underground.”
As the story progresses, Hiram finds himself in Philadelphia. He meets more people in the Underground movement and witnesses first hand the power of a free man. But he soon realizes his longing. He wants to be with family, to have a family. He stresses over Sophia and Thena and he wonders what is happening back at home, even though he knows he is freer than he has ever been. Walking along the river in Philadelphia, he is amazed at the feeling of freedom that envelopes him. After a while though, the call of home is too much.
The ending we are presented with creates a little bit of hope, and a little bit of sadness. Like Hi, we all want to feel free at home. There is much to be said about the need for equality, even in current situations, and Coates doesn’t shy away from showing you just how exhausting and harrowing the lives of enslaved men, women and children were. Coates’s story digs deep into the atrocious act of putting people into bondage and the war they wage for their freedom.
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