What if memories had the power to transport enslaved people to freedom? In his debut novel, The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates experiments with this idea of memory as a superpower. Blending historical fiction and magical realism, Coates’s novel prompts us to rethink the institution of slavery and its enduring legacies.
Set largely in the antebellum South, The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram Walker, a boy born into bondage and gifted with a special talent: photographic memory. Hiram remembers everything–places, stories, people–but there’s one exception: he has forgotten almost everything about his mother, who was sold away when he was 9. Years later, his special gift helps Hiram escape North and become a leading agent in the Underground Railroad. But to rescue the family he has left behind, he has to recall a painful memory long lost: that of his mother.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an acclaimed American essayist, best known for his nonfiction writing on racial and cultural politics in America, including Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power. The Water Dancer is his first work of fiction, yet the ideas that permeate his essays are just as present in this work. One of the central arguments in Coates essays is that Americans must come to terms with the fact that their country was founded on white supremacy. In other words, America has to reconsider its narratives of freedom and progress and acknowledge the dark corners of the country’s past.
“For Americans, the hardest part of paying reparations would not be the outlay of money. It would be acknowledging that their most cherished myth was not real.”We Were Eight Years in Power
Hence why memory plays such a powerful role in the novel. Not only does Hiram have a photographic memory, but he also possesses the special power of “Conduction,” the ability to magically teleport himself and others from one place to another. Firstly unaware of his power, Hiram comes to realize that every Conduction is activated by a memory. And the deeper the memory, the farther it can transport him.
It is not until he meets Moses though–who turns out to be the historical figure of Harriet Tubman–that Hiram learns to master his power. Tubman, who in this book is “the living master of Conduction,” teaches him how for Conduction to work, Hiram has to tap deep into his past and unlock the painful memories of his childhood.
“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.”The Water Dancer
In this way, memory literally becomes a superpower in the novel. The Water Dancer shows us how memory is vitally important, not just on a personal, but even more so on a collective level. Hiram’s struggle to access the hurtful memories of his past stands in as a metaphor for how slavery is often repressed within national memory. And just as Hiram must allow himself to fully experience the most painful part of his past–the separation from his mother–so too must America begin to fully reckon with the past to obtain freedom and liberation.
The Water Dancer not only points to the importance of remembering, but it also prompts us to (re-)consider the enduring legacies of slavery in the present moment.
Soon to be adapted into film, The Water Dancer is among the stories most needed today. A powerful, gripping and though-provoking tale that will hopefully be remembered.
Have you read The Water Dancer? Why do you think Coates chose to explore the themes of slavery and the Underground Railroad through fiction? How are the themes of the novel relevant to modern discussions of race and power?