Magical realism meets real life in the acclaimed journalist’s debut novel about American slaves escaping to the north
A former national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates is among the most revered and widely read intellectuals in the US. His bleak but scintillating book about race, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), was a passionate collection of essays focusing on the sharp divisions and overpowering emotions – from uplifting to ugly – that surfaced when Barack Obama became his country’s first black president. What white America fears most is black competence, Coates reasoned. Black excellence turns that fear into paranoia.
Coates alerted readers to his talents two years earlier with the National Book award-winning Between the World and Me, a letter to his then 14-year-old son in which he warned about the perils of being African American. It was acclaimed by Toni Morrison, who celebrated Coates as the long-awaited heir to James Baldwin.
Like Baldwin, Coates’s elegant nonfiction is haunted by the dark legacy of the American civil war. Little wonder, then, that slavery is the subject of his first novel.
As a cultural analyst, Coates is noted for his stylish prose, but here the writing is spare
In common with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which draws on the life of Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman who hid for years in a low-ceilinged attic in which she couldn’t stand, The Water Dancer makes use of a number of real-life narratives. For one, there are parallels between the protagonist, Hiram, and the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Born in Maryland to a raped, enslaved woman whom he barely remembered after she was sold to another plantation, Douglass was a child prodigy, famous for his extraordinary biography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which told of his escape from slavery to become a great orator and an advocate for emancipation.
Born on an antebellum plantation in Virginia named Lockless – whose community consists of the Quality (masters and mistresses) and the Tasked (enslaved) – Hiram is also the son of a slave master and slave, Rose, who is sold “down river”, leaving Hiram orphaned. Like Douglass, he is an exceptional child who has a gift for remembering everything. Everything, that is, except his own mother.
As a cultural analyst, Coates is noted for his stylish prose, but in The Water Dancer the writing is spare. Hiram considers slavery “a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery”. Sophia, a fellow slave, who admires Hiram’s intellect, dreams of escaping with him: “We could go together. You are read and know of things far past Lockless.”
To escape they will need to evade the man-hunters, the trackers of runaways who “glorified in their power to reduce a man to meat”. The pornography of violence that characterised plantation life is approached with caution here and Coates’s descriptions of flogging – “upon the ocean of his back I saw the many voyages of [the overseer’s] whip” – are among the most memorable in the book. When Coates illuminates the degradations heaped upon recaptured runaways, he does so while ensuring they retain their dignity (“there were no chains… these men were more than bound, they were broken”).
The book’s title refers to an African folk tradition where women on plantations balanced jugs of water on their heads while dancing. In Coates’s telling, theirs is a ritual of remembrance, of the possibility of slipping the shackles of slavery, if not bodily then spiritually. Lockless’s dancers are the reincarnations of those captured Africans who managed to flee the slave ships by wading into the water “to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess brought ’em here, and the water goddess would take ’em back home”. This fable-like quality informs much of the book.
As The Water Dancer progresses, it is increasingly shaped by the real-life saga of William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records (an 1872 book comprising the stories of slaves who escaped). Coates’s focus is on the strategies of the network of abolitionists who engineered passage of the enslaved from the “coffins” of southern plantations across the Mason-Dixon line to freedom in the north.
Having nearly drowned and been buried under a river, dug himself out, been recaptured and escaped again, Hiram joins forces with another character, the actual abolitionist Harriet Tubman, whose daring rescues feature prominently. Like Tubman, Hiram is blessed with a supernatural gift called “conduction”, triggered by powerful emotions and enabling him to travel great distances.
The description of conduction is The Water Dancer’s greatest strength – the author’s method of fictionalising the mystery of Tubman’s out-of-body hallucinations.
During episodes of stress (especially when helping others escape plantations), Hiram, too, is a passenger in his own body. Distances collapse as the Underground Railroad agents travel back in time and jump into the future, the “jump” achieved by the power of their stories: “It pulls from all our lives and all of our losses. All that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved,” says Hiram.
In The Water Dancer Coates is attempting his own conduction – to make the terrible past real for modern readers. As Hiram says at the end of the book: “To forgive was irrelevant, but to forget was death.”
Colin Grant’s most recent book is Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation (Jonathan Cape).