By Chet Yarbrough
The Water Dancer
By: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Narrated by Joe Morton
Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates (American author & journalist, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction with–BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME).
This is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first book of fiction. What makes “The Water Dancer” a fiction is its hero’s mystic ability. He is a water dancer.
Coates’ story is a history that stains American conscience. It is about the tragic sequel of slavery. Slavery is introduced to America in the British colony of Virginia in the 17th century.
Though Virginia tobacco plantations were first created in the 17th century, Coates story is undoubtedly set in the early 19th when plantations were in decline. In 19th century Virginia, soil is depleted by poor farming practices and mismanagement. White property owners turned to sale of their slaves to pay their debts. The ugliness of slavery is compounded by the breakup of black families and friends that shared a common history. Though that history is blooded with servitude and violence, Coates illustrates how slaves created close-knit communities. They were close; in-spite of their sorrowful condition.
Just as soil depletion reduced plantation owner’s income, they increased sale of slaves to sustain their standard of living. Though black slaves had always been treated as property, the crash of the tobacco industry accelerated their sale.
(Thomas Jefferson is a prime example of an American slavery apologist who sold slaves to reduce debt.)
Sons, daughters, husbands, and wives were sold to other white slave holders. Many families were broken apart; some sent to other States after being sold; others escaped to the North.
Some were caught by slavers. Coates writes–runaway slaves were sometimes caught and thrown into makeshift prisons and sold back into slavery. In Coates’ story, prison is a hole in the ground for its hero. Hiram (Hi) is not sold back into slavery but tested for a critical role in the underground.
To compound the humiliation of being caught, Coates writes of slaves who betrayed their own race. Their purpose was to maintain some level of freedom from harsh conditions on the plantation.
Black women were subject to the whims of their owners. Women could be raped by their owners without repercussion, or sold to the Fancy industry, i.e. brothels.
Coates reveals the depth and breadth of what Philip Roth called a human stain, i.e., broadly known as discrimination. Slavery may have been abolished in 1865 but its institutionalization lives in the 21st century. It is a stain that resists removal.
Coates’ story reveals much about America, the abolitionist movement, the growth of the underground, and the human toll of slavery. Coates suggests some wealthy white southerners participated in the underground to salve their conscience. They were heroes but they hid behind the degradation being felt every day by black Americans subject to an economic system based on slavery.
Coates shows how southern white abolitionists were important to the growth of the underground. Their role grew out of a first-hand view of human beings being treated as property.
Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900, Richmond, VA Abolitionist.)
Coates fills many gaps in the history of slavery by seeing it through the eyes of extraordinary slaves.
Harriet Tubman (American abolitionist who rescued an estimated 70 enslaved people. Unknown date of birth; Died in 1913.)
Families were torn apart, men and women were degraded by their enslavement, husbands had to cope with plantation owner abuse of their wives, blacks victimized their own people, and mothers suffered from guilt for the life their children had to live. These are irremovable stains on the American conscience; for both Black and White Americans–each are stained in their own way.