Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to fame with his second book, Between the World and Me, a love letter written to his son. Coates followed the success of Between the World and Me with a historical interpretation of the Barack Obama years in We Were Eight Years in Power. Coates offers much-needed clarity on race politics, naturally, he has found major success as a non-fiction writer.
The Water Dancer is Coates’ first fiction novel. The title of The Water Dancer comes from an African American dance where dancers balance a pail of water on their head while dancing. The dance has origins in Africa, you can see water dancing in this video. Hiram Walker, the story’s protagonist, comes from a long line of water dancers, most significantly, his mother Rose, his mother’s sister Emma, and his Grandmother Santi Bess. Hiram is a tasked member of Howell Walker’s plantation, who also happens to be Hiram’s father. Hiram’s mother is sold away, leaving him with no immediate family, and only the community of other slaves who remember his mother and family fondly as remarkable water dancers. Hiram realizes he has the gift of conduction after he survives a drowning accident. Conduction is the ability to travel through space. Conduction is powered by Hiram’s most personal and intimate memories of his mother, and she serves as the connection between Hiram and his grandmother Santi Bess, who was also known to possess this power.Hiram also has the incredible and burdensome gift of memory. Members of The Underground take notice of Hiram’s powers. The Underground is an organization that helps enslaved people in the South escape to the north. Among the members of The Underground is a familiar figure famed for her escape and her establishment of the Underground Railroad, in which she assisted other slaves to escape. In this alternative version of history, Harriet Tubman possesses the power of conduction.
I never imagined that Coates would venture into fiction, in retrospect, I should have expected it. Toni Morrison said the following about Coates, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The statement was bold but has proved to be accurate in the years following the release of Between the World and Me. Coates like James Baldwin has mastered the ability to weave his factually based political commentary through statistics into stories through which we can understand the true cost of America’s crimes against its black population. Simply put, The Water Dancer is about the power of memory, how the body (a community) keeps memory and how memory can propel a bruised community forward. Parts of The Water Dancer are inspired by the real-life story of the White Family.
The Water Dancer was very difficult to read at times. It reminded me of the first time I watched Alex Haley’s Roots. The anxiety I held of what might befall the enslaved characters. The anxiety was enlightening because I realized that unlike in, We Were Eight Years in Power, in some ways I was now able to conduct myself through a history I read and understood on a theoretical level but could never fully immerse myself in. I still prefer Coates, the non-fiction writer, the book itself felt unnecessarily long and Coates carried the academic, historical and unfamiliar verbiage of his non-fiction work into The Water Dancer. Perhaps he was sending us on our research journey. These are not flaws, that a reader cannot overcome. After three books, Coates’ brilliance still amazes me. When I think of how I can describe Coates, the word “Clarity” comes to mind often, the clarity of his vision, the clarity of his writing, and the clarity of the collective memory he holds for all of us.