This is a book by a Black man about slavery in the United States, and I wanted to open this review by boosting the thoughts of Black reviewers—after all, their take on this book is going to be more salient than the opinion of a white woman like me. Unforunately, as I browsed reviews of The Water Dancer on Goodreads, I was dismayed to see that the majority of them are from white people (mostly judging by avatar), and particularly white women. Never has it been more starkly evident to me that we need to boost and promote the voices of book reviewers of colour. I finally found a review by Monica Reeds, and so I recommend you check that out (and like it on Goodreads!).
I do have an opinion, of course, and that is what this review is about. But I would be remiss if I didn’t knowledge my peculiar positionality, not only in terms of my race but also the fact that I am Canadian, and therefore I’m reading this book as an outsider to the history it inhabits.
The Water Dancer is a first-person narrative with a frisson of the fantastic. Hiram Walker is a slave on a plantation in Virginia. Traumatized at a young age by the sale of his mother, Hiram eventually discovers he has an eidetic memory linked to a mysterious power for translocation called Conduction. Coates doesn’t really explain the nature or functioning of this power for most of the book, and even when we get details, they remain vague. Hiram eventually becomes involved with elements of the Underground (Railroad), even meeting Harriet Tubman. However, his brush with freedom doesn’t last forever, for he discovers that the pursuit of abolition and the freeing of slaves are not always synonymous. In this way, Coates tries to illustrate for modern readers the complex, conflicting dynamics of abolitionist and Underground movements.
Monica’s review says that this book “demands that you take your time and sit with what Coates is exposing you to,” and I couldn’t agree more. Many will pan this book for the lyrical nature of Coates prose, and honestly, I agree with them. The style of The Water Dancer doesn’t appeal to me. Yet I suspect that this is at least partially Coates intention—not to be unappealing, of course, but to write the narrative in such a way as to challenge a reader to unpack its metaphors rather than interpret it as an historically-authentic, cinematic retelling of this period in time. I firmly believe The Water Dancer is an attempt to tell a story about slavery in a way that truly challenges readers to understand not just the intense physical and psychological trauma inflicted upon slaves but the complex social and spiritual relationship between slaves, free Black people, and white people of various classes.
This is evident from the start with the epithets Hiram uses to describe types of people. Slaves are the Tasked, and the work they do is tasking. Owners are the Quality, the rich and high-born Virginians; poor white people are the Low, and Hiram remarks how there is a peculiar, contextual hierarchy in the power dynamics among Quality, Tasked, and Low. Coates doesn’t use these terms to be cutesy or to disguise the nature of slavery. Rather, by using these epithets, he allows Hiram to tell this story from his point of view and averts some of the tropes and stereotypes that have seeped into narratives of slavery over the decades.
I don’t watch a lot of films about slavery—partly because they are depressing, yes, but also because they tend to be directed and written by white people. Hollywood has a hard-on for telling slave stories, but only a particularly type of slave story. As with most of American history, slavery has been romanticized—and even when attempts are made to restore some of the “grim truths” of this era, that restoration essentially amounts to trauma porn. That is to say, narratives of slavery in the States are extremely messed up because they have essentially been colonized by white people in positions of power to tell these stories. The Water Dancer is a decolonization of the slave narrative, and that’s what fascinates me about it.
Here’s another example: Corinne. Here’s Corinne described in Hiram’s words:
Corinne Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name…. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corinne was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia.
I don’t know about you, but as a white person I feel called out by this passage—and I should feel that way. Because Coates is critiquing the attitudes of white people towards the Black people they were claiming to help in a way that has striking parallels to what continues to happen here and now in the 21st century. White people (and particularly white women) love to champion trendy anti-racist causes, yet we often appropriate these causes and quash the very Black voices that we should be lifting up and listening to. The same goes for Indigenous movements, particularly here in Canada. And Coates nails it when he writes that “their opposition was a kind of vanity”—when we throw ourselves behind a cause out of a sense of white guilt, out of a hope that this absolves ourselves of our racialized privilege, we do so at the risk of failing to see and treat and help Black people as people and as individuals.
So it’s moments like that in The Water Dancer that moved me and gave me chills and made me realize Coates was speaking to me in that particular way. Did the book keep me captivated all the way through? No. As I mentioned, its style isn’t to my tastes, and Hiram as a character feels more like a conduit for Coates’ themes rather than a person. He is more memory and story rather than desire and flaw. Yet my personal hang-ups aside, I’m able to recognize that this book attempts something very interesting when it comes to narratives about slavery in the US. And I would like to praise that and point it out, so that if this seems intriguing to you, you can at least give this book a chance.