The central theme in The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel about slavery in 19th century Virginia, is easy to grasp: memory is life. In the words of Harriet Tubman, a character in the book: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die… memory is a bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom” [sic]. The corollary of this theme is less accessible: the act of remembering, Harriet insists, is “just like dancing.”
The Water Dancer has a lot to say about how the memory that liberates works. For Harriet, as well as for the novel’s narrator, Hiram (Hi) Walker – a slave, or one of the “Tasked” – the act of remembering feelings and experiences provides a way to access a magical power called Conduction that they can use to move themselves and others from “the coffin” of the South to freedom in the North. It is when Harriet is teaching Hi how to go on this memory trip that she says: “It’s just like dancing.” But how?
The Water Dancer begins a year earlier in the middle of Hi’s second experience of Conduction. He is nineteen, and drowning in a river at night, when he sees a vision of a woman wreathed in blue light, dancing with an earthen jug filled with water on her head. “No matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” He recognizes the water dancer: she is his mother. Her dancing guides him towards the light. He is found on land, two miles away from the river, not knowing how he got there.
Other than this tantalizing vision, Hi cannot remember his mother. When he was nine, his father, the white plantation owner Howell Walker, or the “Quality,” sold his mother Rose, a Tasked, to another of the Quality. When Hi was eleven, his father, appreciating Hi’s otherwise phenomenal memory, invited Hi to work in the big house. Hi learned to read and write, and served as a slave for Hi’s older brother by a different mother. When thinking about his mother, all Hi sees is fog.
Hi cannot remember his mother, and he also doesn’t dance. When his friend Sophie asks if he can, he replies: “Not even a little.” The excuse he gives is that, in this respect, he “favors” his father. Like the Quality, he doesn’t dance. Sophie chides him: “Ain’t about favor, Hi, it’s about doing.”
Later, as the Tasked celebrate the Holidays together and dancing begins, Hi just watches. He notices that the dance begins and blooms “seemingly of its own accord.” A circle forms, and in the middle he sees Sophie, dancing a water dance, “a flurry of limbs, but all under control,” just like his mother in his blue-lit vision. Sophie sees Hi, slides the jug off her head, and gives him a sip. He drinks the whole jug, but still doesn’t dance.
Hi then spends the bulk of the novel gathering the experiences that will enable him to access his memories of his mother and his power to Conduct. He tries to run to freedom and is jailed, chained, molested, tossed in a pit, hunted by night, and finally freed into the care of the Underground. He learns to spy and hide; to forge documents and find friends; to trust and be trusted. He learns that freedom is its own kind of master, requiring his service. He trains as an agent for the Underground. His love for Sophie carries him through, and he vows to save her from slavery, as she has saved him.
As Hi matures through these experiences, he also learns the significance of dance. Dancing is not only what his mother and Aunt Emma did fabulously well when the Tasked would gather together in the woods at the end of the week, far from the eyes of the Quality. Nor is it only what his African grandmother, Santi Bess, did when she led forty-eight Tasked into the River Goose, and disappeared.
As his first contact with the Underground, Corinne Quinn, explains to him: “the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, [knows] more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe… And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself.”
Corrine is Quality. She is also Underground, fighting for freedom. From her vantage point between worlds, Tasked dancing affords insight and wisdom that escapes language. As such, dancing not only appears on par with a written library as equally illuminating, it also reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim exclusive knowledge over others. As Corinne claims: “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”
As dance scholar Katrina Hazzard-Gordon explains, in the Yoruban traditions from which many of the Virginian Tasked came, dance is the medium in which people learn about, commune with, and are moved by the spirits or Orisha. Of particular importance to enslaved Africans was Yemaya, the water goddess, Mother of All, Mother of the Ocean where all life begins, and the fierce protector of mothers and children. Dances performed for Yemaya consist of swirling, spiraling movements, like waves snatched by the wind. Water dances.
Yet, Africans relocated to the United States didn’t just bring knowledge of how to do particular steps. They brought knowledge of how to use dancing as a medium for creating relationships with the powerful forces in their lives. Their ability to dance was the primary means left to them for exercising their autonomy and creating a way of life for themselves distinct from that of the slave owners. They not only used familiar patterns as material for communicating in new ways with one another across ethnic and linguistic differences, they evolved new dances. Through dancing, the enslaved had a method for moving with joy in the world they were given. For feeling free. For remaking the world.
Still, Hi can’t dance. Now free, attending a large gathering of people fighting to end the slavery of women, children, Africans and more, he hears the drums and songs of a dance beginning. “I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam.” The next day he meets Harriet who teaches him that memory is the key to Conduction.
In the end, Sophie is the person who helps Hi understand the significance of the water dance, and thus opens a path to remembering his mother. She tells Hi a story of an African king who took control of the slave ship that was carrying him and his people across the ocean. When the army of Quality approaches, the king tells his people to dance on the water, “to sing and dance as they walked” because “the water-goddess brought ‘em here, and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” Yemaya. Sophie continued, “And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see? As we must do all things, make a way out of what is given… ‘It’s like dancing.’” To flip it. To find a way out. To feel the joy amidst the losses, the freedom in the midst of slavery. To remember it all, and keep dancing.
Hi finally realizes what is keeping him from remembering his mother. “I was too young to survive with the memory.” The memory was too powerful. It would have wrenched him apart and destroyed him. So he had to forget it until he had learned how to “flip it,” how to “stay with the sound” and the story, how to hold open sensory space in his bodily being for accepting both his losses and his loves, his Quality father and his Tasked mother. As he insists, “there is no pure.”
Hi is finally able to embrace “the warmth of the muck… The facing of facts”: he vows to love as his own the child that his father’s brother forced upon Sophie. Only then can he access the memory of his mother, of himself, that enables him to Conduct his first slave to freedom. As he does, he sees people dancing – his mother, his aunt, and many others — and then in chains. “I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.” Hi vows to keep remembering… so that the dance may continue.
The Water Dancer renders vivid the task of remembering slavery for everyone involved, regardless of race. It is not just about recalling life-denying experiences of oppression; it is about staying with the sound of the story; feeling the tug of the drum and moving with it. It is about cultivating the sensory strength to feel the pain as a reason to choose love over anger, vengeance, and pride again and again, in the midst of the muck. It is creative and bodily; it involves discipline and skill. It’s just like dancing.