I’ve had an overdose of slavery writing lately, by virtue of having been enrolled last semester in an English class literally called “The Slave Narrative and the Novel.” So, goodness knows why, at the dawn of the decade, I thought it would be a good idea to go read yet another slavery novel.
For quite a while from the beginning, The Water Dancer was going, content-wise, the way I expected it to, and so I had thoughts of abandoning it until I felt capable of engaging with a slavery book again. The thing that changed my mind halfway through, which got me to commit to finishing, was this one narrative spin: superpowers.
I’ve read quite a bit of Coates’ nonfiction. I know, though, that he is also a comic book writer, particularly of one of Marvel’s Black Panther series. I still haven’t read any, like the disgrace that I am. Either way, just by knowing Coates’ reputation for writing superheroes, I sat up a lot straighter when I saw the hint of superpowers in The Water Dancer. This man knows the genre well, I thought. He’s about to give me a superhero slavery novel and I have never in my life read a superhero slavery novel. Turns out, however, that in this regard, the joke was on me. The Water Dancer turned out to be more of a coming-of-age story by way of magical realism, than a superhero story. So, there, I suffered from a bit of unmet expectation. It’s hard to say whether my expectations were even valid or not, seeing that I don’t actually know how Coates deals with superpowers in his other texts. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and am glad I finished it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazingly poetic writer, which made the prose a genuine pleasure to read. Now, this feature worked spectacularly in the narration and inner thoughts of the main character, Hiram. There was also something quite fascinating going on in the combination of racial and class-based language into categories unique to the world of The Water Dancer. Slaves were generally referred to as “the Tasked” and slavery itself as “the Task”; slaveholders and powerful whites were generally referred to as “the Quality.” I’m sure Coates would be able to give some brilliant explanations for his decision to use such language, which can scarcely escape the notice of any reader who may be desensitized to the more commonly used words/categories.
Where the language seemed to fall into awkward confusion was in the direct speech. The way slaves talk in The Water Dancer is very different from how slaves have talked in any other text I have read. It felt weird. Not necessarily a good, creative weird like with Toni Morrison’s characters, but weird like, “You can’t possibly expect me to believe they said this like that.” I don’t know what the difference is that made the words come off so, but I can’t deny that I felt uncomfortable with it sometimes. One critical reviewer said that all the characters sounded the same, and I can definitely see how that opinion came about.
There were many other things I loved, though. One of them was the recurrent messages of freedom and individuality, both in the institutional sense—regarding the Task/slavery—and in the personal sense of being allegiant to oneself. Two of my favorite quotes came from the characters Corinne and Hawkins.
“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see—one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose.” –Corinne
“But I think this is the lesson in it all. We forget sometimes—it is freedom we are serving, it is the Task that we are against. And freedom mean the right of a man to do as he please, not as we suppose. And if you have not been as we supposed, you have been as you were supposed to be.” –Hawkins
Another thing I found wonderful was the lexivist themes woven so integrally into the story. The novel presented the power of story, storytelling and memory as mediums for the supernatural, and the power of good, crafty writing as a liberating, dangerous tool utilized by the defiant Underground.
Besides these, I thought Hiram was a sufficiently complex character. His internal struggles, thoughts and moments of cognitive dissonance came across as extremely realistic. The dangerously potent attachment to his owner’s family, property and town, for one. Then there was his immaturity and then maturity, callousness and compassion, desire for proximate power, fear of freedom, complicated relationships with women.
Speaking of women, possibly my favorite thing about The Water Dancer was how the women in the novel refused to be owned. Especially Sophia and Moses/Harriet. I thought the Harriet character was very congruent with how she was portrayed in the recently released movie Harriet (which did the superhero slavery thing excellently, I might add!). As for Sophia, the hurt she harbored regarding men was so profound, I felt it in the depths of my soul. She seemed to me to represent how, after you have been traumatized by a man, being any man’s woman, even in love, is sometimes too terrible to contemplate. Her fear, which even Hiram picked up, was so powerful and relevant.
“What I did understand was that she was terribly afraid of something—something in me, and the thought that I would, in any way, exist to her in the way of Nathaniel, that she would fear me as she feared him, scared and shamed me all at once.” –Hiram
And I am glad Hiram was ashamed.
My greatest discomforts with The Water Dancer come from, interestingly enough, how the novel reads as being extraordinarily nice to white people. Something in me is already weary of the whole biracial-slave-owned-by-his-white-master/father protagonist thing. On top of that, Hiram’s love for his father—whom he consistently referred to as, and wholeheartedly and delightedly claimed as his father—was a bit sickening to me. Furthermore, the white characters, particularly Hiram’s father and Corinne, only got called out a couple of times each, and none harshly enough that I really felt anything. The white characters felt kind of like heroes. I don’t know what that means for a slavery novel. I do know what that means in terms of being palatable to the mainstream publishing industry, though, so I don’t know what to think about that. The one time I was struck in a positive way by Hiram calling someone out was in this case:
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. –Hiram
I thought this a necessary and refreshing perspective to bring to the consideration of white abolitionists and Underground agents. But Coates definitely has the creative license to do what he wants, and I don’t know half of the crap that goes on in the publishing world before a book comes out, so I choose, this time, to refrain from any explicit judgment. Life is hard and weird.
Despite the many someway things, I did think The Water Dancer was a good novel and enjoyable read. And I really like when Black people have superpowers.
-Akotz the Spider Kid
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