Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015, and The Water Dancer. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Coates lives in New York City with his wife and son.
Presented as a long letter from a black father to his young son, this is a truly important book. In the words of Toni Morrison, it “is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”
Coates recounts growing up in West Baltimore, and how, along with the north side of Philadelphia and the South side of Chicago, these were distant worlds in the galaxy of the country. His reality was growing up with constant fear and continuous reminders of the difficulty of inhabiting your own body or living freely. He learned that the police are endowed with the authority to destroy a black body. “Race is the child of racism, not the father”, a construct that justifies the Dream of whiteness. A machinery of criminal power dedicated to the violent exploitation of other [black] people; “the entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.”
At the onset of the civil war, black slaves in the south represented the largest economic value in the country, more than all industry, railroads, workshops and factories combined. Given that the slaves produced the cotton that was the main product, Mississippi declared “the institution of slavery is the greatest material interest in the world.” In fact it is national heritage. The right to destroy the black body is seen as a mark of civilization. So being black is to be the “essential below of your country”.
The break between the world and Coates stems from the actual injury done by the Dream of whiteness in its attempt to name him, while he would love to have a past free of fear, and to know that he was from somewhere, that his home is as beautiful as any other.
And now with the “New Jim Crow” of incarceration, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, “our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”
But while “they made us into a race; we made ourselves into a people.”
Coates concludes that even if the plunder of the planet leads to “the whirlwind”, he assures his son Samori that family bonds and memories of ancestors can lead to wisdom, to being himself and establishing his legitimate name. This beautifully written, unflinching book is ultimately inspiring, a reminder of resilience and hope stemming from human connections.
The Water Dancer “is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.” This magnificent book describes the intense bonds of family and memory under the relentless oppression of slavery. Set in the tobacco country of Virginia, it is the story of Hiram, born into bondage, but the son of a white plantation owner. His mother was “the best dancer of Lockless”, the woman who was “patting juba”, in intense dance competitions with water gourds on her head. When she was sold away, Hiram was left with no memory of her save an image of her dancing, but in other regards he is gifted with a mysterious power and an extraordinary memory.
As he grows up he is assigned to serve his doltish half brother Maynard. The whole world shifts when their carriage plunges into the river, triggering out of body experiences and raising questions about reality. The wonderful writing develops the lives and community of the slave society, with its tiers of white slave owning “Quality”, the enslaved “Tasked”, and the mostly impoverished and brutal white “Low” classes. It is difficult to do justice to the many subtle aspects Coates brings out or the complex plot; his descriptions of place and interaction are vibrant, and he establishes truly engaging and uniquely varied characters.
Much of the action involves the Underground Railroad, attempts to escape, and the difficult adaptations to life outside the plantation. This is the story of surviving the atrocities of slavery and the unfathomable pain of families ripped apart, by delving into the healing powers of memory. The rich storyline also reveals the insanity of a system that could induce someone to enslave his own son.
While conditions on Virginia tobacco farms were mildly better than the cotton or cane sugar farms, the total system depended on constant even if at times subtle violence. As the soil depleted and the farms ran down wealth spread to the west, and debts were paid by selling people. The slave markets in Natchez and “the coffin”of deep south cotton plantations were always looming as the eventual destination for many. But within this oppressive situation the people treasure connection above all else, and links of memory and family are the threads that bind this beautiful book.
For the “freed” the links to these others become all important, finding and freeing them priority, and Hiram is even moved to return to the south to be with the woman he loves. Famous in history for her success in liberating slaves, Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of the Underground Railway, figures as a character. She shares esoteric powers with Hiram, giving this book a mystical and novel dimension.
Coates writes with a luminous clarity, sketching the truth of intense personal experience even in the most difficult of situations. As a voice for the reality of black experience and the unbearable horrors of the shared history of exploitation, he is unsurpassed. The Water Dancer is an epic journey through a painful past that is profoundly linked to contemporary systemic dysfunctions. The memories that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of are part of the remedy for our wounded world at this time. This really is a book that everyone could enjoy and learn from.
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