The Water Dancer lacks the power of We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me, but it’s not without its merits.
One of the great difficulties of our era will be remembering that Twitter was once fun and one of the site’s great pleasures was the feed of one Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates specialized in deconstructing popular mythologies surrounding race in America created by the institutions of white supremacist power, debating all-comers. But his feed was also a place to dissect superhero comic books, particularly the large events that consumed multiple titles throughout the history of Marvel Comics. Both occupations led to acclaim as a public intellectual and writer whose work spanned nonfiction essays and a gig writing Black Panther, and whether you agreed with his opinions or not, his thinking affected your own. The Water Dancer, Coates first foray into the novel, combines both these areas of expertise. Set in antebellum Virginia, the book is part historical fiction, detailing the slave narrative and the Underground Railroad in unique ways. But, it is also the origin story of a superhero, Hiram Walker, the Water Dancer. While this sounds like the perfect union of writer and subject, the book is more uneven than thrilling.
Water dancing, also known in the book as conduction, is a means of teleportation through memory. It’s not time travel, but a utilization of the power of memory to travel greater distances. The more powerful and emotional the memory, the farther one can travel, but the yielder must use water as a conduit for their power. It is not a common ability, and those who possess it exhibit higher degrees of intelligence and memory retention than their peers. Hiram Walker is such a person. He retains information in an instant, whether faces, the curvature of handwriting or the coordinates on a map, but his excellence is something he must hide given his station as a slave. Like a burgeoning X-Man, he knows he is special but lives in a world that will kill him for it. One day, a white knight rides up to him and tosses him a rough-edged copper coin and a promise of security. That man is Hiram’s father, Howell Walker, patriarch of Lockless, his ancestral plantation, and he moves the boy to his house to serve in less harsh conditions than the tobacco fields. Hiram thinks he’s been saved, but he is reminded that he shares only blood with Howell and Howell’s other son, Maynard. Hiram will always be property, despite the attributes that would make him a more desirable heir than his oafish half-brother.
Virginia, at this time, is crumbling. Tobacco yields continue to decline and more and more plantations remain afloat by selling their slaves to the South and West. Coates does scathing work using this era and the hierarchy of the household to represent modern-day America. Whites are divided into the Quality like Howell and the other plantation owners, Low Whites like the militias that round up runaway slaves and the Tasked like Hiram and the other slaves. Whites of all station are depicted as cruel and malicious, but the Quality are often vicious and random in their actions, especially as their grasp on power dwindles with each crop. They are anti-intellectual and superstitious and the machinations of their society are powered on Black labor. Mediocrity is a death sentence for Black people and a baseline for their White masters, but no expression of humility can save the Tasked from an aggrieved White man. It is an all-too-familiar slice of a world that would rather see its own destruction than make motions toward equality.
To further the theme of Black excellence, water dancing is a power that only Blacks can yield. There is the legend of an African king who led a revolt on the slave ship where his people were imprisoned, killing their captors. When they were under attack by a White army, the king led his people overboard and back to Africa through his power. An aunt of Hiram’s used the power, as does Harriet Tubman, known in this story as Moses. Coates withholds the Underground Railroad, building his world around Hiram, Lockless and Virginia. It’s a ponderous decision because the book ignites when the Underground frees Hiram after he is captured for running. As he so often does in his nonfiction work, Coates challenges what we think we know of history, examining the heroic, bloody intelligence work that went into transporting slaves northward. Hiram learns it all, becoming an agent of the Underground in Virginia and Philadelphia, an organization desperate to see him learn to yield his teleportation power for the greater good. Coates takes every opportunity to examine whether a person serving a higher purpose is ever truly free, especially someone with power like Hiram. In the end, Hiram must make a choice between the overarching cause and one that is more personal.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written innumerable words about race in America and his insight is always welcome. The Water Dancer lacks the power of We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me, but it’s not without its merits. At its worst, it is a pedestrian mashup of historical fantasy, but it has exceptional stretches that stay with you. No matter what the form, Coates is an exceptional communicator of forgotten history. His voice is always necessary and his next efforts continually anticipated.