The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publisher: Penguin Random House / One World
Published: 24th September 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction | Magical Realism
Source: Early Reader’s Copy from One World
Young Hiram was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed off all memory of her – but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.(Source: Book Blurb)
2019 will go down as the year authors collectively said ‘Fuck Genres! We are going to do whatever we feel like, mix them, gather them, throw them around, shake them over and give you whatever the fuck we want!’ And I am so here for it. Namwali did not disappoint with ‘The Old Drift’ and Coates has followed suit with this phenomenal book that is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism. For a man who woke our consciousness when he revisited the issue of reparations for African Americans in his 2014 article ‘The Case for Reparations’ and also introduced us to King T’challa and the wonderful Kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther, it is no surprise that his first foray into fiction would be a mix of all these variants that have defined his career.
The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram, a ‘Tasked’ man (slave) and the black son of an enslaved woman and the Plantation Owner at Lockless, the plantation where he is ‘tasked’ in Antebellum, Virginia. Hiram has a special gift, passed down to him by his grandmother Santi Bess and this gift makes him invaluable to the Underground Movement. To harness the true power of his gift, Hiram has to reach down the depths of his memory to remember that which he has buried in the deepest most sacred place of his being – his mother. We follow Hiram’s journey and a long cast of characters as he struggles to understand and tap into his gift to free not only himself, but other tasked men and most importantly, those he loves most.
More than anything, The Water Dancer makes you SEE slavery for what it was; its intricacies and complexities. It was never a simple matter of men being taken from Africa and shipped across the Atlantic, forced to work in fields and sold at the whims of their masters, but a collective consciousness that failed humanity. It was about the women who were tied to slavery through their children, the price some had to pay for freedom, the personal cost and sacrifices made, the white abolitionists and the individualistic interests that propelled the underground movement, the gravity and pain of loss and the historic dehumanization of black people.
Coates’ writing is impeccable. I was apprehensive about the magical realism and how it would tie in with the slave narrative but Coates pulls it off effortlessly – almost had me believing in the power of Conduction. Or is it that I wanted so badly to believe that after everything the slaves had to go through, God would have at least given them this one gift? It’s difficult not to get resentful when reading these stories.
The Water Dancer borrows from real slave stories and their journeys - some boldly referenced in the book like Harriet Tubman, those who made daring escapes and those who served in the Underground – Ellen and William Craft, Henry "Box" Brown, William Still and his Underground Railroad Records which was a huge inspiration for this book.
I recommend this book to everyone and especially those who hold that Black People should just ‘get over slavery’ because it happened such a long time ago and those who think that slavery was a choice because we do to remember. We need to educate ourselves and to talk about it so we can find healing and in doing so, ensure that we never again create an environment where this kind of dehumanization is allowed to thrive.
Thank you to One World for sending me a copy of this book.