The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

For me, it’s official, Mr. Coates can write. In The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates proves he can write fiction that is just as deep and accessible as his nonfiction. In The Water Dancer he writes about slavery (which he calls the Task) and abolitionists and the Underground, a subject that has had some good authorial attention in recent years. But, although the movement is present in the story, for Coates it is the people affected by slavery, the families torn apart, the histories lost, that matter. It is the inspirational struggles to create new family ties and to hold on to traditions, even if they had to be formed anew in a strange and terrible land.

Virginia is the state where the Lockless plantation tries to maintain an idle lifestyle, maintain a genteel veneer which rests on the shoulders of those who are tasked to do anything that might even vaguely be considered work. Every white person even has a personal maid or valet, a slave, who bathes them, grooms them, and dresses them.

These white plantation owners were supposed to be farmers but they were so greedy and so tied to the payouts from their tobacco crops that they refused to believe that the crops they depended on were depleting the land they were planted in. Some of those who “tasked” on the land understood what was happening but either no one listened or, as the land produced less income, those who understood the land and the crops were sold away south and west – to Natchez and beyond. Slaves really were sold away to Natchez but Coates also uses Natchez as a symbol for family separation, for sorrow, for harsher conditions, for loss.

Plantation owners, slave owners, sold off the most valuable “taskers” first so the family members who remained were left without the strongest among them, perhaps the most characterful, and the older slaves who kept the stories of celebrations and family ties alive. Sorrow that is never given time to abate collects and turns “the task” into a sadder, even more burdensome duty to preserve a failing white lifestyle even as the “taskers” see the community of their own, that they have been able to create in their captivity, disintegrate daily into grief and tearful good-byes.

Hiram Walker is a mixed-race son of Howell Walker, who also has a son by his white wife. Hiram who finds a home on the Street where the “tasked” live, a home with Thena, a women he is not related to, is a child with an excellent memory. He remembers every detail of what he sees and hears. But he cannot remember his mama. He knows her name is Rose. He knows she was a water dancer. He has seen her dancing in a vision on a bridge. A water dancer can dance joyfully and gracefully with an earthenware jar full of water on her head and not spill a drop. He knows his mother was a beauty, and he knows she had a sister, Emma – also a water dancer – because his “adopted” people have told him so. But where his own memories of his mother should be there is a hole.

Hiram also has a special talent. He can conduct himself across distances without being seen. In a land where no slave can walk off the land of his/her “master” without a pass, and where running away can be punished by near death (slaves are valuable property and so are rarely killed outright), someone who can “conduct” himself unseen has a very great gift indeed. But Hiram cannot control his talent and this is somehow related to what he does not remember about his mother. His love for another Lockless slave, Sophia, has grown over the years and it allows him to also accept and love her mixed-race child. Hiram needs to learn how to control his talent so that he can take the two women he loves and the child to freedom in the North.

Whether or not Hiram learns to control “conduction” and how he uses it is at the heart of this story but for me toil and survival, family and heritage; anger and sorrow and the mistaken idea that one person can “own” another – these things are the true heart and soul of this story. Conduction is part of an almost-lost origin story which never died even though the people the story belonged to were kidnapped, abused and held without freedom (in a land that supposedly treasured freedom).

I happen to be reading the Frederick Douglass biography by David Blight at the same time as I am reading Coates’ novel. These two book pair very well and one book seems to riff on the other. If white folks ever hope to understand not just why slavery was wrong but how the repercussions of this aberrant human behavior will echo forever in the souls and families of our fellow Americans of African Descent then The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates should add depth to your quest for understanding. I cannot speak to how black and brown people experience Coates’ novel but I hope to get exposure to some of their reactions.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

Every American should read Between the World and Me. The book is a letter that Ta-Nehisi
Coates has written to his teenaged son, but it is more, way more than that. If
you want to surrender your white privilege for a bit and experience what it is
like to be a black person in America, immerse yourself in the arc of Coates’
life as he shares with his son and with us. You may be white in America and
think that your life does not seem to have any “white privilege” in it. If so, then
you need to read this book even more than most of us. We still have a ways to
go if we really want to eliminate racial discrimination in our society, which
was supposedly built on the precept that “all men are created equal”.
I remember being lifted to a new level of consciousness when
I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison because it hit me so personally. I
learned to read using the Dick and Jane readers
with the perfect little children with their cute pets and their red wagons.
These children were white and lived in a simple and healthy “white” world. When
Toni Morrison contrasts her life events with those of those two happy-go-lucky
little white children we are aghast that she had to suffer so when she was just
a child. And I am not saying that there are not white children who grow up
under equally horrifying circumstances, but the idea of an American child using
this book to learn while experiencing, in her own life, the things she did is
shocking and heart-rending. When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about “the Dream”, and
I assume he means the American Dream, he is, in part, talking about the sweet
life depicted in those Dick and Jane
readers.
Toni Morrison wrote her book in 1970. You would think that
big contrasts between the lives of Americans of African Descent and the lives
of white Americans would no longer exist but that is not what has happened.
Coates suggests that much of the behavior that makes white folks fear black
neighborhoods is just a series of defensive stances by black people who have
even more reasons to fear and blame almost everyone. It is important that we
understand this.
Coates talks about how difficult it is to understand the
passive resistance of his forebears in the 60’s when they fought for their
civil rights. He feels drawn to the more militant beliefs and strategies of
Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. But he does not incite his son to violent
activism. Coates goes on to show his son how, as he kept growing and studying,
he changed. He expanded his world to include Howard University which had an indelible
effect on him. He married. He and his wife settled in New York City and the
city, so much more cosmopolitan than most American cities showed him that
greater freedom is possible. This also affects his thinking. He studies history
and gains perspective on the fact that white Americans are not alone in their
imperfections. 
Traveling to Paris mellows him and gives him additional
insights. But his deeper understandings, although they may “fix” him, have not
fixed America and that is the job that lays before us. This talented American
writer should not have to fear what America holds in store for his beloved son.
There is an awful lot packed in these 150 pages and the book flies by, but the
implications stay. If we are serious about finding a way to honor the words
(not the deeds) of our forefathers, if we want a strong, healthy nation that
works for all of our citizens, then read this book and use it as a way to help
us change. We need to change.
By Nancy Brisson