The Water Dancer Summary
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Water Dancer is set in pre-civil war Virginia, on a slave plantation called Lockless in Starfall, Elm County.
Hiram Walker - Hiram is the main character and narrator of the novel. Born into slavery on Lockless plantation, Hiram is the son of Rose, an enslaved woman, and Howell Walker, his mother’s enslaver, and thus is a product of rape.
Sophia - Sophia is a young woman enslaved by Nathaniel Walker at Lockless. Nathaniel regularly rapes her and eventually fathers her baby, Caroline.
Thena - Thena is an old woman who lives at Lockless and has a reputation for being the meanest person on the Street (the area of the plantation where the enslaved people live).
Rose - Rose was Hiram’s mother and daughter of Santi Bess. She was beautiful and all the men at Lockless were in love with her. She and her sister, Emma would water dance on special occasions.
Corrine Quinn - Corrine Quinn is a white woman from Elm County who owns a property named Bryceton not far from Lockless. An only child, Corrine inherited her parent’s property and vast fortune when they died.
Howell Walker - Howell is Hiram’s father and also his enslaver. During the main section of the narrative, he is already quite old (around 70) and dies at the end of the novel.
Maynard Walker - Maynard is Hiram’s half-brother and Howell’s only "legitimate” child, making him the heir to Lockless. As a teenager, Maynard is childlike, helpless, and foolish, and he remains so after becoming an adult.
Mr. Fields/Micajah Bland - Micajah Bland, who is first introduced via his fake identity as Mr. Fields, is a white Underground agent who infiltrates Lockless by working as Maynard’s tutor.
Moses/Harriet Tubman - Harriet, who for much of the novel is known by her nickname, Moses, is based on the real figure of Harriet Tubman.
Raymond White - Raymond White is an underground agent who lives in Philadelphia. Born into slavery, both his parents escaped the plantation and ended up reuniting in Philadelphia.
Otha White - Otha is Raymond’s brother; like Raymond, he was born into slavery. When Otha was a child, his mother Viola, fled with both him and his brother, Lambert.
Santi Bess - Santi Bess was Hiram’s grandmother and Rose’s mother. She was a "pure-blood African” who possessed the ability of Conduction.
Georgie Parks - Georgie Parks is a widely-respected free black man who lives near Lockless in Freetown. Formerly enslaved, he bought his freedom and married a woman named Amber, with whom he has one baby son.
Driving a carriage by the River Goose, Hiram has a vision of his mother, Rose, water dancing. The vision makes Hiram accidentally drive the carriage off the road, sending him and his half-brother and master Maynard into the water. Maynard cannot swim and calls out Hiram for help. Hiram is convinced he is about to die. His brother drowns, but he is transported to safety.
Hiram later learns that he has a power called conduction, a power shared by the great escape artist Harriet Tubman also known as Moses, who enslaved people. Conduction made the earth fold "like fabric,” and on contact with water, Hiram can use it to transport himself and other people across great distances. But to do it, he needs to access a powerful source of the feeling. He needs to remember his mother.
He eventually becomes involved with the Underground Railroad. Hiram escapes to Philadelphia, where he encounters Box Brown and Jarm Logue. He eventually comes to meet a famous member of the Underground named Moses, who also has the power of conduction. Moses teaches him that Conduction relies on the power of memories and requires water to function.
- Memory Vs. Forgetting
The Water Dancer makes the case that memory is vitally important, even when the horrors of slavery make it tempting to repress one’s memories. Ta-Nehisi Coates conveys this point through the main character, an enslaved man named Hiram Walker, who has a supernaturally powerful memory. By making Hiram’s ability to remember an actual superpower, Coates suggests that memory is not just personally important for individuals, it has the capacity to change the World.
- Broken Families
The Water Dancer depicts the ways in which slavery corrupted and destroyed the families of enslaved people. It mainly does so by exploring one of the most harrowing aspects of slavery: family separation. All of the enslaved characters in the novel have family members who have been sold, creating permanent separations. The novel also shows how families are broken by slavery through the prevalence of rape of black women.
- Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge
The Water Dancer draws on the common understanding that slavery is a system of stolen labor, and emphasizes that enslaved people were also robbed of their knowledge, skills, and power. It explores this point by showing all the ways in which enslaved people were more competent, talented, and knowledgeable than their enslavers, and by even depicting some of the characters born into slavery as having superpowers.
- Water, Movement, And Freedom
Water and movement are central elements of the Water Dancer; together, they represent the freedom that the enslaved characters in the novel are constantly seeking. Water and movement are tied together in several ways, the first of which is water dancing, something Hiram’s mother Rose and aunt Emma used to do when he was a child.
- Humanity Vs. Inhumanity
The Water Dancer depicts the brutally dehumanizing system of slavery, yet it also shows the ways in which enslaved people experienced their own humanity under this system. It largely does so by showing the emotional lives of the characters, most significantly the protagonist, Hiram. Rather than focusing on the violence and degradation that constitute life under slavery, the novel foregrounds Hiram’s thoughts, feelings, and (extraordinary) abilities. Alongside this, it also suggests that white people are truly dehumanized by slavery. Not in the sense that they are oppressed, but rather because they erode their own humanity by degrading the humanity of others.