“My part has been to tell the story of the slave,” Frederick Douglass said. “The story of the master never wanted for narrators.”
That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates opens “The Water Dancer,” his electrifying, inventive novel about an African-American man’s escape from bondage. Known for his award-winning essays and bestselling memoir, “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, this is Coates’s first foray into fiction. He loses none of his mastery for conveying complex ideas and, blending a deep knowledge of American history with scintillating wordsmanship.
James Baldwin, to whom Coates has often been compared, said great writers aren’t driven by inspiration. They are gripped by compulsion, “something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die.”
“The Water Dancer” exudes that level of gravity. Coates, who first gained national prominence with his deftly written and researched article, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, is one of this nation’s most incisive voices about slavery and its profound repercussions. It’s not surprising, then, that his debut novel would be set during those sorrowful centuries of human bondage.
This is where America’s origin story begins: in blood, death, subjugation, and an insatiable yearning for freedom. Coates worked on this novel for 10 years, and his craft shows on every page. He gives this story – and these men and women – the care and space they demand and deserve.
Hiram, the novel’s narrator, lives at Lockless, a massive Virginia plantation “carved out of the mountains.” It is both the only home he has known, and no home at all. He was conceived through rape, and he craves his freedom, though he knows this makes him no different than the other Tasked. That’s how Coates refers to enslaved black people. By dictionary definition, to be tasked means “to be oppressed with great labor,” and it’s an achingly apt description for the cross African-Americans were forced to bear for nearly 250 years.
Yet Hiram is also touched with miraculous gifts. He can remember and recreate verbatim everything he hears or encounters: songs, conversations, dates. What he cannot recall is his mother, taken and sold when Hiram was only nine years old.
“I was terrified, not simply because I had lost my mother, but because I was a boy who remembered all his yesterdays in crispest colors, and textures so rich I could drink them,” Hiram says. “And there I was, awakening with a start to nothing but ephemera, shadows, and screams.”
Yes, slavery was marked with physical brutality, but it often overshadows the emotional savagery of a child taken from parent, a mother or father sold away from their children, or siblings scattered in different counties, if not different states. The ruination of slavery was more than the infernal indignity of being owned like a mule or a plow. It was also the deliberate disintegration of black families for the sake of commerce. Bondage spilled blood and severed blood ties.
It’s not a stretch to see in Coates’s harrowing descriptions here the caged children of migrants who may never see their parents again, lost in a system that sees them as less than human.
Years after the theft of his mother, Hiram realizes he, too, must go.
Here, the novel gains a cinematic scope – an uncanny accident, a fortuitous moment, and the sudden image of Hiram’s mother guide him on an uncertain path to freedom. Hiram also has a mystifying ability called Conduction. Within the glow of a blue light, it transports those who possess it across bodies of water.
Hiram’s superpower, which will serve him well as his flight from bondage leads him to the Underground Railroad, brings to mind that Coates is not only a lifelong comic book aficionado, but has also written the Black Panther series for Marvel. This could be a made-for-the-big-screen gimmick. Instead, it reflects the indefatigable strength and skill of those who claimed their freedom at any cost – through luck, guile, and perhaps even the divine.
Reading this novel, it seems clear why Coates might have chosen that Douglass quote to set a mood. It could be taken a rebuke to those who, a few years ago, decided that the world had had enough stories about enslaved black people.
This happened somewhere between the Academy Award-winning success of “12 Years a Slave” and the box office failure of “The Birth of a Nation,” an apocryphal retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave insurrection. No matter how noble or sympathetic the portrayal, African-Americans, it was argued, deserved more stories in print and on the screen beyond centuries of slavery.
But there is also this truth, one Coates has pursued his entire professional life: We cannot abandon our obligations to keep alive history that too many – from politicians to journalists to educators – have sought to suppress. If those who still suffer most from this nation’s greatest sin, cease to bear witness to this high crime, if our ancestors cannot speak through our voices, then our silence becomes a convenient narrative for the masters.
A haunting adventure story told through the tough lens of history, “The Water Dancer” is a quintessentially American story of self-creation, doubt, and elevation, with every step threatened by peril and violence. Every day black people must overcome whether it was in antebellum America, or in a nation now led by a white supremacist president.
THE WATER DANCER: A Novel
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World, 416 pp., $28
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.