The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done, because you cannot rule as is needed.”

Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When the slaveholder sells his mother, Hiram is robbed of all memory of her, but from the loss he develops a mysterious power that later saves him when he nearly drowns. The power leads Hiram to escape the only home he’s ever know. As the novel moves through time—from Virginia plantations to Northern movements to the underground—Hiram struggles to truly part from the family he left behind.

Coates writes with urgency and the story unfolds in a sweeping way, covering immense ground. It’s as if we’re running alongside Hiram as he moves from place to place, grappling with the long-term effects of his childhood and all that was taken from him or never given. The quote that starts this review is only one in the plethora of quotes I underlined. It is timely and also caused me to think about arguments made right now. There are people who blame the breakdown of the family unit for current problems, but if you puncture that thought at all, it crumbles—whites, and slave owners specifically, started that breakdown when they purposely sold enslaved family members so that husbands and wives and children were torn from each other, annihilating their human connections to justify treating them as property. The conscious unseeing—the refusal to see—is a disease that’s plagued the white mind for centuries.

As the story unfolds, we learn that (spoiler alert!) Hiram’s father is the white slave owner who sold his mother. This fact, and the reality of it, underscores the barbarity of the institution when we reconcile how a slave woman came to birth the son of her owner, how the owner then sold the mother but kept the child who he couldn’t acknowledge as his without sacrificing his own superiority. At the risk of over-quoting, I’d also like to share this:

“All of these fanatics were white…They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name…slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess…They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.”

Substitute a few words and we still see this mentality. Internal reckonings are good for the soul, and we must consistently question ourselves and our motives and the things we’ve learned that perpetuate this narrative, causing it to ring true in this very moment.

I no longer support Book of the Month. I got this copy from them in 2019, and am featuring here because I still want to support the author.  I recommend buying from Harriett’s Bookshop, the lit bar, or Semicolon. If you cannot buy books right now, local libraries are a great resource.

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