The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World. 416 pp. $28
Reviewed by Ron Charles
In the middle of President Obama’s second term, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay in the Atlantic titled, “The Case for Reparations.” It was one of those rare stories that didn’t just touch a nerve, it left a bruise. To a country that dared to pretend it had long ago cleared the books on 250 years of theft, Coates presented a discomfiting audit. “Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery,” he wrote, and with heartbreaking examples and vigorous analysis, he demonstrated how new, insidious modes of plunder had been woven into the supposedly enlightened legal and economic structure of 20th-century America.
Two years later, this MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, National Book Award winner, and trenchant cultural critic also had revealed his secret identity as a writer of comic books. His resurrection of T’Challa for Marvel’s Black Panther was a runaway best-seller that, in turn, influenced Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther movie.
Now, Coates has unveiled yet another creative direction by publishing a novel called The Water Dancer. While neither polemical nor wholly fantastical, the story draws on skills he developed in those other genres. Presented as a slave narrative in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, The Water Dancer is rooted in details of pre-Civil War Virginia. But like Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, the story’s bracing realism is periodically overcome by the mist of fantasy. The result is a budding superhero discovering the dimensions of his power within the confines of a historical novel that critiques the function of racial oppression.
That sounds like a mess — Spider-Man Takes Antietam! — but Coates isn’t dropping supernatural garnish onto The Water Dancer any more than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through Beloved for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates’ fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain. Oprah Winfrey has picked The Water Dancer for her new book club, which will stream on Apple TV+ when it launches Nov. 1.
The story opens with calamity: During a terrible storm on the Lockless plantation, a horse-drawn carriage crashes off a bridge into an icy river. The driver, a slave named Hiram, miraculously survives. But the passenger, Hiram’s white half-brother and the heir apparent of the plantation, drowns. For their father, this is just the latest disaster. Poorly managed tobacco farming has destroyed the soil on the Lockless plantation. Every year, more slaves must be sold down South to service rising debts. To the master, this is a troubling inconvenience. To the enslaved families ripped apart, it’s a death sentence.
Hiram narrates this story from a distance of many years, but he describes everything with bracing immediacy. After the drowning death of his half-brother, he jumps back to describe the traumatic loss of his black mother and his existence as the favored slave of his proud father/master. That precarious position introduces Hiram to the social and psychological contortions of America’s “peculiar institution,” and he becomes an insightful critic of the layers of white deception. The Quality people, as Hiram refers to them, “transfigure robbery into charity,” rape into romance, slavery into family. The stability of this system, he learns, depends not merely on power and terror, but on a carefully engineered structure of lies and pretenses.
“I saw that just as the fields and its workers were the engine of everything, the house itself would have been lost without those who tasked within,” Hiram writes. “My father, like all the masters, built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness, to hide how prostrate they truly were.” The grand house is constructed “so as to make it appear powered by imperceptible energy.” Every care is taken to render invisible not just the horrors of slavery but its victims, who are kept “in the down there, in a basement of the mind.” Moving between floors, Hiram and his fellow prisoners must use the secret “slave-stairs” so that they are never seen. During parties, Hiram says, “we were made to appear in such appealing dress and grooming so that one could imagine that we were not slaves at all but mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charms.”
Despite his extraordinary skill as a modern-day social critic, Coates never intrudes on the stately, slightly antique voice of his narrator. But his understanding of modern-day racism illuminates this portrayal of the 19th century, and it’s not difficult to hear the contemporary echoes of Hiram’s observations. After all, we still live in a world carefully designed to dissolve the contributions of black Americans in the solvent of white superiority. Our national mythology still regards slavery as a tragic footnote, not the essential precondition for America’s rise to power. As Coates writes in “The Case for Reparations,” ignoring the prominence of slavery remains essential, because it leaves “white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values.” Such historical amnesia is the fuel that keeps our national innocence burning bright.
In response to that time-honored delusion, Coates has cleverly constructed The Water Dancer so that the act of remembering is key to Hiram’s supernatural ability. For several years, the young slave doesn’t understand what’s happening to him or have any control over the phenomenon, but gradually he comes to realize that by recalling neglected experiences and people, he can fold physical space like fabric and thereby travel instantly to distant points. Naturally, that’s a skill of great interest to agents working for the Underground Railroad.
Among the many fascinating elements of this perilous journey is Hiram’s interaction with these daring abolitionists on both sides of the slavery border. Harriet Tubman appears clad in the superhero guise she deserves. But Hiram must negotiate his standing with white agents, too —condescending liberals who believe they know what’s best for their enslaved brethren.
The tone and setting couldn’t be more different from his Black Panther comics, but with Hiram, Coates manages to re-create, in the context of the antebellum South, a chosen one who comes to understand the horrible burden of what’s required of him. That archetypal hero feels strangely natural here because Coates has effectively taken back this tarnished history and clarified the position of blacks in the fight against slavery. They are not passive victims waiting to be saved by enlightened whites. They are warriors, strategists, and spies plotting their escape and struggling to remember everything.