Acclaimed author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked in an interview that “much of the country’s history is premised on forgetting, not remembering certain things.” [i] His statement refers to the repression of the slave past and its erasure from American narratives of freedom and progress. In his debut novel, The Water Dancer, Coates underscores the centrality of remembering the painful past and the power of memory in the acquisition of freedom and liberation.
Coates’s historical novel, which draws on the tradition of the slave narrative and employs many of its narrative tropes and plot devices, is part of a corpus of works that (re-)turn to the past and take up the subject matter of slavery—a literary movement that pointedly reemerged in the post-Civil Rights era and that continues into the present. Black American novelists began to confront and engage with the history of slavery and its legacies some three decades before official markers memorializing slavery, such as monuments, memorials, and museum exhibitions, started to materialize in public spaces in the 1990s. [ii] As Toni Morrison outlined in her 1987 essay “The Site of Memory,” writing fiction is an act of remembering the past and shaping the cultural memory thereof, thus literature is a site of memory of slavery. [iii]
In contrast to material memorials and monuments that manifest canonical representations of historical narratives and events (but which are by no means uncontroversial or contested as the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues demonstrates), literature as a textual memorial has arguably greater potential for engaging with the past in nuanced and complex ways. The Water Dancer and other recent works of historical fiction that explore the history of American slavery and its legacies (for example Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, 2016 and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, 2016) counter the historical amnesia, the willful forgetting and erasure of the historical trauma from the public conscience, reckon with the gaps and silences in the historical archive of slavery, challenge established ideas and discourses surrounding the history of slave past, and comment on the politics and processes of remembering.
The Water Dancer takes readers to the pre-Civil War United States, more specifically, to a tobacco plantation in Virginia and the streets of Philadelphia. The protagonist of the novel is Hiram Walker, a young enslaved man working on a tobacco plantation ironically named Lockless. Born in bondage as the son of an enslaved woman and a white father, Hiram has an exceptional memory. However, while he never forgets anything and “remember[s] all his yesterdays in the crispest colors,” [iv] he is unable to recall the memory of his mother Rose who was sold off by his father when Hiram was a child. The memory of separation from his mother is so painful that he has buried it, and when he tries to remember his mother, there are only “ephemera, shadows, and screams.” [v] The violent separation of families and the tearing apart of social ties are central themes in the novel that illustrate the horrors of slavery and the trauma inflicted on people who were treated as property.
In order to conceive its very own vision of the system and reimagine the institution of slavery, The Water Dancer creates a powerful new vocabulary. For example, it refers to slavery as “the Task,” to enslaved people as “the Tasked,” to the white upper class and those who “own” the Tasked as “the Quality,” and to poor whites as “the Low.” Defamiliarizing the terms that are known to us, the novel creates new associations and meanings attached to the institution of slavery, it eschews old vocabulary that frequently obscures, rather than illuminates, the dynamics at work, and thereby renders its own vision of the past and prompts readers to reimagine this chapter in American history.
Narrated from Hiram’s point of view, the story follows his escape to Philadelphia and his involvement with the Virginia Railroad, a secret network of people who facilitate the freedom-seekers’ escape from the slave-holding states in the South to the free states in the North, and his eventual return to Lockless to help free the people he loves. The Water Dancer reimagines the Underground Railroad and takes on the air of magic and mystery that informs the historical tales surrounding this nineteenth-century resistance movement: Hiram has a special power called “Conduction” (alluding to the operators of the Underground Railroad who were also referred to as conductors), which allows him to traverse large distances within an instance and thus escape confinement. However, it is not until he is acquainted with Moses—who is revealed to be the historical figure of Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad—that he learns how to summon and master his superpower. Harriet reveals to Hiram that Conduction depends on the ability to conjure memories and tell stories that are informed both by love and loss: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is the bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” [vi]
In the novel, memory advances into a superpower and the act of remembering becomes a means of liberation that ushers enslaved people to freedom. For Hiram, this means that he has to recover and excavate the buried feelings and piece together the disjointed memory of their separation, an emotional pain that is mirrored in the physical exhaustion that both Harriet and Hiram experience after Conduction. However, not confronting these memories is not an option because, as Harriet warns Hiram, “[t]o forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die.” [vii]
While memory is central to Conduction, it can only be summoned with the force of water. By making water a prerequisite for Conduction, the novel explicitly and implicitly points to the cultural memory of the enforced journey across the Atlantic Ocean of 12.5 million Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Furthermore, Conduction’s allusions to dancing on the water recalls the Black American folktale of African captives, who waded into the water or jumped from slave ships to free themselves in hopes of returning to Africa. Referring to the title of the novel, these Africans, “who danced on the waves” [viii] as they courageously and triumphantly took control over their lives by going in to the water, are commemorated and honored by the water dance. Water dancing, like conduction, is presented as a reclamation of freedom and agency.
The Water Dancer and other works of historical fiction are not only important because they further our engagement with the past but also because such works disclose to us something about the time of their production. As expressions of contemporary concerns and anxieties, fictional explorations of slavery offer crucial insight into and commentary to the contemporary moment, thus offering ways to rethink larger social, ideological, and political discourses that define the present moment and prompting readers to consider the enduring legacies of slavery.
This re-examination of slavery’s destructive impact and consequences through the lens of literature is as urgent as ever given the racial politics and increasing public visibility of white supremacist ideologies. In Re-forming the Past, Timothy Spaulding points out that “[t]he fact that African American writers continue to examine slavery through a diversity of forms and narrative strategies reinforces the basic belief that we can understand our present and anticipate our future only through a thorough interrogation of our past.” [ix] The Water Dancer poignantly reminds us of the importance and the necessity to remember and engage with the past. Remembering the personal and cultural trauma of slavery and recognizing the consequences is crucial in order to work towards a more ethical and just future.
[i] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on ‘The Water Dancer.’” Fresh Air, interviewed by Terry Gross, National Public Radio, 24 Sept. 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/09/24/763811937/ta-nehisi-coates-on-the-water-dancer.