The Quality, for instance, did not inquire on the inner workings of their “people.” They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us. They had no notion of our ultimate aims and desires. They were entranced by our songs, but they could never know the deeper meaning, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must only know that mother in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt-water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot understand him as human. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done because you cannot rule as is needed. You can no longer ensure the tobacco hillocks are raised to your expectation; that the slips are fed into those hillocks at the precise time; that the plants are weeded and hoed with diligence; that your harvest is topped and the seed is filed and saved; that the leaves are left on the stalk, and the stalk spiked and hung at the proper distance, so that the plant neither molds nor dries out, but cures into that Virginia gold that is what moves the base and mortal man into the pantheon of Quality. Every step is essential and must be followed with the utmost care, and there is but one way to ensure that a man takes this care with a process that rewards him nothing, and that way is torture, murder, and maiming, is child-theft, is terror.
I have been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates ever since I read Between the World and Me and was very excited to learn he would be delving into fiction. I knew his novel would most likely be a good one, but I was not prepared for the myriad of feelings I experienced while reading. The Water Dancer is a powerful novel, one that I feel should be discussed in English and Literature classes everywhere. It is required reading.
Hiram Walker was born into slavery. He thinks he is like all of the other Tasked of Virginia until an accident unlocks his true power. With that power revealed to him, Hiram must come to terms with the changes this power will bring to his own life, but also to the lives of those around him. Hiram’s journey is one we all face when confronted with great responsibility: will he join the fight against the great evil that is slavery or do what is expected of him and do nothing?
Mr. Coates’ novel does not speak of slavery in the ways we’ve all grown accustomed. No, he uses more subtle language about the “Demon” slavery was. But the subtlety does not make the telling any less difficult to read nor does it exonerate the perpetrators of that horror. Instead, Mr. Coates uses his love of the word to express how the characters in the story felt while enslaved, and what they would do to get out. The quote above is one of many passages I highlighted or bookmarked while reading because I was moved so deeply. Mr. Coates dug deep down into the very being of what it means to be oppressed. Not just the oppression of slavery, but also the oppression of freedom and what one must do to maintain that freedom, especially living in a world that does not want to see you free.
I implore anyone who reads this review to read The Water Dancer and really sit with it. Let the words wash over you, take notes, bookmark pages. Then when you’re done, read it again. I plan to purchase this book for my personal library to be read again and again. I highly recommend it.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Netgalley. The quote cited above may be changed in the final version.