Water Dancer (Coates)

The Water Dancer 
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2019
Random House
416 pp.

From the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom.

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power.

Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North.

Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved.

Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 30, 1975
Where—Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Education—Howard University (no degree)
Awards—National Book Award, George Polk Award, Hillman Prize (Journalism)
Currently—lives in New York, New York

Ta-Nehisi Coates (TAH-nə-HAH-see KOHTS) is an American writer, journalist, and educator. Coates is a National Correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about cultural, social and political issues, particularly as regards African-Americans. In 2015, he won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me.

Coates has worked for the Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Washington Monthly, O, and other publications. In 2008 he published his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. His second book, Between the World and Me, was published in 2015 to wide acclaim.

Early life
Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to father, William Paul "Paul" Coates, a Vietnam War veteran, former Black Panther, publisher and librarian, and mother, Cheryl Waters-Hassan, who was a teacher. Coates' father founded and ran Black Classic Press, a publisher specializing in African-American titles, as a grassroots organization with a printing press in the basement of their home.

Coates grew up in the Mondawmin neighborhood of Baltimore during the crack epidemic. His father had seven children—five boys and two girls, by four women (his first wife had three children, Coates' mother had two boys, and the other two women each had one child). In Coates' family the important focus was on child-rearing. The children were raised together in a close-knit family; most lived with their mothers and often visited their father. Coates, however, said he lived with his father full-time. As a Black Panther, Coates' father adhered to the Black Panther doctrine of free love rather than monogamy.

As a child Coates, enjoyed comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. His interest in books was instilled at an early age when his mother punished bad behavior by making him write essays. Another big influence was his father's work with the Black Classic Press; Coates said he read many of the books his father published.

Coates attended a number of Baltimore-area schools, including William H. Lemmel Middle School (where some scenes for The Wire TV series were shot), Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, before graduating from Woodlawn High School. His father was hired as a librarian at Howard University, which enabled some of his children to attend with tuition remission.

After high school, he attended Howard University and left without a degree after five years to start a career in journalism. He is the only child in his family without a college degree. In summer 2014, Coates attended an intensive program in French at Middlebury College to prepare for a writing fellowship in Paris.

Coates' first journalism job was as a reporter at the the Washington City Paper; his editor was David Carr, who later wrote for the New York Times.

From 2000 to 2007, Coates worked as a journalist at various publications, including Philadelphia Weekly, Village Voice and Time. His first article for The Atlantic, "This Is How We Lost to the White Man," about Bill Cosby and conservatism, started a new, more successful phase of his career. The article led to an appointment with a regular blog column for The Atlantic, a blog that was both popular, influential and had a high level of community engagement.

Coates became a senior editor at The Atlantic, for which he wrote feature articles as well as maintained a blog. Topics covered by the blog included politics, history, race, culture as well as sports, and music.

His writings on race, such as his September 2012 Atlantic cover piece "Fear of a Black President," and his June 2014 feature "The Case for Reparations," received special praise and won his blog a place on the Best Blogs of 2011 list by Time magazine, as well as the 2012 Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism. The blog's comment section has also received praise for its high level of engagement; Coates curates and moderates the comments heavily so that, "the jerks are invited to leave [and] the grown-ups to stay and chime in."

In discussing his Atlantic article on "The Case for Reparations," Coates said he had worked on the article for almost two years, reading Rutgers University professor Beryl Satter's book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America,. Satter's book is a history of redlining, which discussed the grassroots organization, the Contract Buyers League, of which Clyde Ross was one of the leaders. The focus of the article was more on the institutional racism of housing discrimination than on reparations for slavery.

Coates has worked as a guest columnist for the New York Times. He turned down an offer from them to become a regular columnist.

In 2008, Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir about coming of age in West Baltimore and its effect on him. In the book, he discusses the influence of his father, a former Black Panther; the prevailing street crime of the era and its effects on his older brother; his own troubled experience attending Baltimore-area schools; and his eventual graduation and enrollment in Howard University.

Coates' second book, Between the World and Me, was published in July 2015. Coates said that one of the origins of the book came from the murder of a college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr. who was killed by police in a case of mistaken identity. In an ongoing discussion about reparation, continuing the work of his June 2014 Atlantic article, Coates cited the bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers "H.R.40 - Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act" that has been introduced every year since 1989. One of the themes of the book was about what physically affected African-American lives, their bodies being enslaved, violence, that come from slavery and various forms of institutional racism.

Coates was the 2012–14 MLK visiting professor for writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the City University of New York as its journalist-in-residence in the fall of 2014.

Personal life
Coates currently resides in Harlem with his wife, Kenyatta Matthews, and son, Samori Maceo-Paul Coates. His son is named after Samori Ture, a Mande chief who fought French colonialism, after black Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo Grajales, and after Coates' father. Coates met his wife when they were both students at Howard University. He is an atheist and a feminist.

Coates says that his first name, Ta-Nehisi, is an Egyptian name his father gave him that means Nubia, and in a loose translation is "land of the black." Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in current day northern Sudan and southern Egypt. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 8/27/2015.)

Book Reviews
(Starred review) [A] wonderful novel…. In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers…. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Coates brings his considerable talent for racial and social analysis to his debut novel, which captures the brutality of slavery…. Beautifully written, this is a deeply and soulfully imagined look at slavery and human aspirations.

(Starred review) [M]agic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue.… Coates' imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad's history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead's, if less intensely realized…[but] deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think Coates uses terms like "Tasked" and "Quality" instead of "slaves" and "masters"? What do you think the novel gains from this altered language? 

2. Hiram says that the Tasked are "Blessed, for we do not bear the weight of pretending pure." How does Coates define morality in the novel? In what ways does Hiram’s notion of morality differ from that of the Quality, or even Corinne?

3. What do you make of Howell Walker’s apology? To what extent does Coates humanize Howell? Why do you think he does this?

4. What roles do the concepts of motherhood and fatherhood play in the novel? How does Hiram, and perhaps by extension, Coates, define family?

5. Sophia tells Hiram, "But what you must get, is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours." What is Coates saying about the particular struggles of black women in this novel? How does Hiram’s relationship with Sophia change over time to reflect this?

6. Characters like Corrine and Seth Conklin risk their lives to work for the Underground, while also allowing Hiram and some of its other members to come to harm for the greater good of the organization. What might Coates be trying to say about the relationship between white people and racial justice with these characters?

7. Discuss Harriet’s role in the story. Did you know immediately who she was? What impact does the inclusion of a historical figure have on the narrative?

8. What is the significance of water throughout the book? Why do you think Coates chooses it as the medium for Hiram’s power?

9. Coates is best known for his works of nonfiction; The Water Dancer is his first novel. Why do you think he chose to explore the themes of slavery and the Underground Railroad through fiction? What is gained when the book isn’t tethered to historical fact? What is lost?

10. American slavery and its effects are a well-trod subject in both history and literature. What does The Water Dancer add to our understanding of how enslaved people suffered? What does the novel add to our understanding of the agency, resilience, and strength of enslaved people during that time?

11. How are the themes of The Water Dancer relevant to modern discussions of race, privilege, and power?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2024