Featured image: Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.
History has always been a weapon in the hands of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now, in his debut novel, the social critic and essayist sets out to recover those struggles for emancipation that have been lost to the past.
American history has always been a weapon in the hands of Ta-Nehisi Coates. As a blogger and columnist for The Atlantic, he wielded it to chronicle the long assault on black people in America by both the state and private citizens. In his essays on cultural products like HBO’s Confederate, political events like the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and the successes, failures, and future of radical movements in America, he has invoked it to argue about the causes and effects of our troubling present. For him, America’s racist past is key to understanding the afflictions of black communities today.
Coates learned to appreciate history as a young person. As he grew up in the 1980s, his schoolteachers offered a celebratory version of it in the hopes that, as he put it, the hard-won triumphs of African Americans might offer “the curative for black youth who had no aspirations beyond the corner” in the present. Yet as an adult, he embraced a darker version of that history—one that examined at length the reactionary, racist backlash that often followed black victories.
This often pessimistic view of America’s past—and the body of historiography that vindicated it—was central to the 2014 article that helped launch him into the national spotlight. In “The Case for Reparations,” Coates argued that much of the country’s history has been defined by the “armed robbery” of black people by whites. From the brutal theft of black labor via slavery through the predatory practices of the Jim Crow era to today, the state has used and sanctioned violence against African Americans to exploit them. To finally put an end to this regime of subjugation, Coates insisted that Congress should pass HR 40, the long-touted bill to fund an investigation into the amount of reparations due to black people for slavery. This inquiry might yield inconclusive results, but the research would force the United States to account for its sins and, in so doing, help it mature “out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” A public return to the past, in other words, would change America’s future.
No such bill was passed, and in time Coates turned away from history’s uses and toward its limits. In his 2015 book Between the World and Me, he emphasized how history books have failed to capture the immediate experience of racism. After describing several recent police murders of black people to his then-15-year-old son, he insisted that the language used to discuss state violence—phrases as neutral as “race relations” and as critical as “white supremacy”—did not adequately render its human toll. “You must always remember,” he observed, “that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” The distance between experiencer and observer inherent in any historical inquiry—as well as those of other academic fields—put historians at a disadvantage. It made it impossible, Coates argued, to capture racism’s felt violence; something more was needed if the past was still to be used as a weapon for the present.
In its insistence on what history cannot capture, Coates’s polemic resembles recent scholarly arguments on the historiography of slavery. Saidiya Hartman, in her powerful essay “Venus in Two Acts,” similarly points out that the historian’s main tool, the archive, often obscures black people’s experience of slavery. Instead, the enslaved are abstractly listed as monetary values in logbooks, discussed as property, and so on. Coates agrees in Between the World and Me that history too often hides this human experience—not only in the age of slavery but also in its afterlife.
Coates’s latest book, The Water Dancer, is his first novel, a work of historical reconstruction that joins the growing body of creative and scholarly works intended to fill this gap. Told from the perspective of Hiram Walker, an enslaved man born in Elm County, Virginia, who eventually joins the Underground Railroad, the novel seeks to capture aspects of black experience difficult to access in archives. In this way, it descends from a large body of fictional slave narratives that came into being in response to William Styron’s 1968 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which projected then-common racial stereotypes onto the history of slavery. Troubled by his portrait of enslaved men, Sherley Anne Williams in Dessa Rose, Ernest Gaines in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and several other authors challenged Styron’s novel by writing their own, which are rooted in visions of black history that do not rely on racial caricatures—a genre that the literary critic Ashraf Rushdy has examined in Neo-Slave Narratives. Just as these earlier novels projected black people’s views of themselves onto a past that often obscured them, so too does Coates aim to recover black experiences—the sense of pain and hope, submission and resistance—lost to history.
To capture this experience, Coates supplements realism with the techniques of fantasy and the metaphorical powers of myth. Midway through the novel, Hiram discovers that he has a magic gift: Upon entering a body of water and recalling a deep-seated memory, he can conduct—or teleport—himself to a different body of water that he has seen. Because of this supernatural skill, members of the Underground Railroad recruit him to their cause, and Hiram learns of other enslaved people who have magically freed themselves. This list includes such historical personages as Harriet Tubman, another conductor, and Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself across the country in a wooden crate to gain his liberty. The best way to understand enslaved people freeing themselves from such a dominant, repressive system, The Water Dancer implies, is to view such feats as fantasy.
For Coates, the magical and the fantastic are also a perfect way to explore something that slavery and its violences obscured: how black people created families and a broader social life despite being trapped in a system that sought to prevent both. While the novel chronicles the fracturing of kin units by slave owners, it simultaneously follows enslaved people who use magic to reunite them.
From the outset, The Water Dancer avoids slavery’s terms. On the Lockless plantation in Virginia, where Hiram is born and the novel begins, there are no slaves or slave owners but rather the Tasked and the Quality. As a young child on the Street, where the Tasked of Lockless live, Hiram is singled out almost immediately as special. He has a near-perfect recall of everything he hears; by the time he is 5, he can sing an entire song after hearing it just once. He will soon discover other, more magical skills, but his natural talent, he insists, is his memory.
The one caesura in his memory is indicative of the Task’s effect on the black people it enslaves. After his father and master, Howell, sells Hiram’s mother when the boy is just 9, Hiram is left with “no pictures, no memory, of any goodbye, indeed no pictures of her at all.” Hiram is forced to find a new mother in Thena, an ornery woman whose children were sold. The two cling to each other and, in so doing, keep kin and culture alive despite the Task’s assaults.
When Hiram is called up to the house by Howell after he turns 12, the boy learns that Lockless’s peculiar institution has perverted the familial relationships of its white residents as well. After Hiram impresses his father with his flawless memory, he begins attending lessons with the man who tutors his white half-brother, Maynard. Being better at his lessons, Hiram comes to think that Lockless has been doomed not by “the land but the men who managed it.” He continues:
My father, like all masters, built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness, to hide how prostrate they truly were…. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.
Beholden to his father and half-brother but more capable than both, Hiram learns that he will be forced to look after the foolish Maynard as his “personal servant.”
In time, the apparatus of violence built to protect the Task not only alienates Hiram from his family but also compels him to repress his romantic interests. Shortly after he begins as Maynard’s servant, he falls in love with Sophia, a woman on the Street who “belonged to my uncle, my father’s brother, Nathaniel Walker. None needed to guess at the nature of this arrangement.” Worried about the consequences of pursuing her, Hiram realizes 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.” The Task, in Hiram’s eyes, remakes him so that he fears not just loving others but his ability to do so.
Hiram does, however, hold on to one hope: the possibility of escape. After he drives a chariot carrying himself and Maynard into a river, Maynard drowns, and Hiram survives by unwittingly using Conduction to teleport himself from the dangerous current onto the river’s bank. Having barely escaped drowning and afraid of being sold now that Maynard is dead, Hiram begins to dream of a different life. After Sophia tells him that her master will never let her go, he comes upon an “understanding,” Coates writes, that will set them on the path to freedom. “Running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.”
Hiram plans an escape and goes to a freed black man rumored to be a member of the Underground Railroad. One week later, he and Sophia flee in the middle of the night and go to the freed man, who awaits them with a fugitive-slave patrol known as Ryland’s Hounds. The two are arrested, but as we soon discover, this will merely be their first attempt.
Hiram’s incarceration after their thwarted escape helps him better understand the Task. While held in chains, Hiram fully realizes what it meant to be a slave: “All my life I had been a captive.” One night during his detention, some white men unlock Hiram and the other incarcerated black men and let them run. Should they evade the white men for the night, they will be free. No one succeeds at this contest, even though the prisoners repeat the trial for many nights. But over time, Hiram improves and even comes to feel “freedom, brief as it was, in those nights of flight.” Freedom here is not a static quality but a process.
In time, Hiram also comes to see the process of liberation as an ongoing battle. During one of the nightly trials, Hiram falls into a pond and once more accidentally uses Conduction, this time to teleport himself to the river near where he grew up. There he is found by a man enslaved to Corinne, Maynard’s former fiancée. When Hiram is delivered to her, Corinne informs him that she has purchased him and that she and “her” Taskers are actually covert agents of the Underground Railroad. Rather than flee to the North, she tells Hiram, they “have accepted the gospel that says our freedom is a call to war against unfreedom.” They have been monitoring him because he has the power of Conduction. Now they want him to master it and use it for their war against unfreedom.
After learning that Sophia has been sold farther south, Hiram abandons the idea of reuniting with her and instead dedicates himself to the Underground Railroad’s war. In time, he becomes an agent and works to free other enslaved people. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Hiram helps rescue an enslaved woman named Mary. Yet when her rescuers tell her that she is free, Mary responds, “Ain’t no living free, less I’m living with my boys.” The freedom that the North offers is worth nothing without her family, and so Hiram comes to think that no enslaved person can be truly free until the families that have been torn apart by slavery are rebuilt. “For what did it mean to be free,” he observes, “when those you hold to most are still tasked?” For Hiram, this applies not just to black people in general but to himself as well: He will not be truly free until he has been reunited with Sophia and Thena and once again has a family.
This quest to revive lost relationships also becomes, over time, a quest to remember. When Hiram decides to use his skills of Conduction to save his family, he turns to the greatest conductor in the Underground Railroad, a woman named Moses who turns out to be Tubman. At her request, Hiram agrees to join her on a trip into “Pharaoh’s land” (Maryland) to free her brother. They meet at the Schuylkill River, on whose waters Moses walks, and she explains that recalling an important visceral memory is the key to using Conduction. “The jump is done by the power of the story,” she tells him. “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” Hearing this, Hiram realizes that he must come to terms with the memory he’s been repressing: the loss of his mother. If he can remember her, he can save those he loves and prove an even more effective soldier in black Americans’ war for freedom. Throughout The Water Dancer, the recovery of past experiences and feelings is the key to future liberation.
Hiram’s return to those he loves is far from ideal. After he sneaks south, he goes to see Corinne, who agrees to let him serve as an agent at Lockless under the pretext of being leased out to his father. Hiram begins sleeping in the room of his deceased half-brother. Shortly thereafter, he visits Thena:
But before me now was one who had lost as I had, who had been joined to me out of that loss, out of that need, and had become my only unerring family at Lockless, just as she had told me.
They were made family not in spite of their losses but because of them. And in the case of Hiram’s relationship with Sophia, their losses mean that what remains is even more important. After listing all the people she has seen sold south or west, Sophia tells him, “It has been a blessing of mine to see you return to us, to be reborn, twice in a lifetime…. Must be some powerful meaning, for we are not in Natchez, but right here before each other.”
Hiram becomes a historian and archivist of his lost family. Hoping to learn more about his mother, he discovers a shell necklace that she once gave him in his father’s belongings. He then recalls that his mother tried to flee the Task with him and that Howell, in turn, sold her off and took the necklace.
He took my memory of her too…. The pain of memory, my memory so sharp and clear was more than I could bear, so that this one time, I forgot, though I forgot nothing else.
By reclaiming the necklace, Hiram regains a once-lost past and acquires the tools he needs to transport his loved ones to freedom.
And yet Conduction does not grant Hiram the familial arrangement he expects. He had hoped to conduct Sophia and Thena north and then return south himself to fight the war for freedom. But when he tells Sophia his plan, she refuses to leave without him. Thena responds similarly. When Hiram tells her that he has found her daughter in the North and will deliver her there, she asks, “What will I do when I look at her and all I can see are my lost ones?” Although she’s ambivalent about journeying north, she eventually agrees to let Hiram conduct her to freedom.
The Water Dancer does not end with the uprooting of slavery—that work is ongoing—but by helping Thena recover part of her lost family, Hiram has begun such a task. With this pivotal victory, Coates concludes his novel, with emancipation and family reunification as only the first vital step in ending black enslavement.
Like Hiram, Coates does a fair amount of Conduction in the novel to help move narratives of freedom and enslavement from their traditional spatial and temporal boundaries to new territory. Whereas historical accounts frame the war for and against slavery as taking place from 1861 to 1865, The Water Dancer’s narrative occurs earlier, in the 1850s, and locates that war in the wilderness where enslaved people steal away and in the homes where black families persist. This account accords with Coates’s earlier nonfiction work. In the 2012 Atlantic essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” he insists that “for African Americans, war commenced not in 1861, but in 1661, when the Virginia Colony began passing America’s first black codes.” And throughout his career, he has argued that the war for black freedom has never been limited to the period between a formal declaration of hostilities and the signing of a peace treaty or to the front lines of a given battle.
Whereas his earlier work often discusses the white counterinsurgency, The Water Dancer focuses on black insurgency. This attention to resistance places Coates’s novel at the intersection of two different but related antebellum traditions. The emphasis on war brings to mind Martin Delany’s 1859 novel Blake, which recounts the tale of a fugitive enslaved man conspiring to start a war to free black people and found a black nation. Meanwhile, the emphasis on black people striving to reunite their families recalls The Kidnapped and the Ransomed, the 1856 narrative of Peter and Vina Still, which tells of their separate escapes and subsequent reunion in the North. (Peter Still is also alluded to in The Water Dancer.) The result of the influence of these earlier works is a novel that depicts the abolition of slavery as both the unmaking of a violent social order and the reknitting of a more harmonious one, creating families and, in so doing, societies premised on freedom.
Coates’s insistence that the family is the quintessential front on which this struggle is waged has another source: black feminism. The Water Dancer makes this influence apparent; the title of proto–black feminist Ann Petry’s novel The Street provides the name of the quarters where the black people of Lockless live. Coates’s tale of black families surviving slavery’s assaults also owes much to the work of Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, both of whom wrote about black people creating and maintaining families in the midst of horrifying antebellum violence. And he learns much from the work of black feminist historians like Tera Hunter and Heather Williams, who have similarly emphasized how the effort to rebuild the black family was shaped by enslaved people reasserting their humanity in the face of a system that sought to transform them into commodities.
But what impact does black feminism have on the plot and characters of Coates’s novel? Narrated entirely from a black man’s point of view, The Water Dancer foregrounds Hiram’s lack of understanding of the women in his life. Of his early infatuation with Sophia, he says:
I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown. Love was not concerned with any deep knowledge of its object, of their wants and dreams, but mainly with the joy felt in their presence and the sickness felt in their departure.
The novel’s women play a central role in moving the narrative forward and in helping Hiram discover the ways that he must change to liberate himself and others. For example, he constantly learns of his own naivete, thanks to Sophia. Early in the novel, she tells him that she does not want to flee with him if he intends simply to become her new master. Later she observes, “You want me to be yours, I understand. But what you must get, is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours.” He has to accept that he cannot presume to know what she wants or decide for her. This, Sophia implies, is an integral part of freedom too: Liberation must happen on all fronts, not just one.
In this way, Coates offers an important contribution to our historical understanding of slavery. By depicting his black characters, especially the women, as freedom fighters, he asserts their agency throughout the novel—an agency that has often proved elusive to historians relying only on archives. In addition to Tubman and “Box” Brown, we are introduced to the historical figure Ellen Craft, who passed as a white man in order to liberate herself and her husband. According to C. Riley Snorton in Black on Both Sides, enslavement excluded Craft from white, female gender norms, which enabled her to pass as a white man and helped her collaborate with her husband to free themselves. By alluding to Craft’s story as well as Tubman’s exploits and by creating resourceful female characters like Sophia and Thena, Coates reminds us that liberation was the work not only of black cis men like Hiram but also of all those who did not fit that label, who faced persecution for their gender, and who fought for their freedom through different means.
Coates may have turned away from his teachers’ belief that learning about moments of black triumph in the past might change the lives of black people in the present, but The Water Dancer does breathe new life into stories of black Americans struggling to end the country’s long history of racial violence and inequality. The novel adds to the historical scholarship by imagining those parts of the struggle that scholarship cannot access. But it does something else as well: It insists that emancipation was only the first step toward black liberation—that freedom is a process. Indeed, as Hiram observes at The Water Dancer’s end, the war for Elm County, for Virginia, and for the nation is only beginning.
This article was originally published by The Nation.
Elias Rodriques is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has been published in n+1, Bookforum, and elsewhere.