There is no way I am going to be able to do justice to The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It not only is a gorgeous story of survival, family, and love but also a story that forces you to rethink everything you knew about slavery. With prose that makes you wish you had his skill with a pen, The Water Dancer haunts you long after you finish.
Some people might catalog The Water Dancer into a Magical Realism category simply because of Hiram’s special powers, and you can make a good argument for it. However, given the origins of that power and the history behind it, to me, his power is one more element of his character and a reminder of the traditions of all the enslaved, something that most novels all-too-easily forget.
Another striking aspect of The Water Dancer is the verbiage used to describe the enslaved. Mr. Coates does use the term slaves every once in a while, but mostly when describing the relationship as it pertains to white people. When discussing himself or his family, Hiram mostly uses the word Tasked rather than slaves or the enslaved and The Task in lieu of slavery. It is a simple change but one that has huge ramifications for the way you see Hiram and his family. The usage of that one word forces you to recognize their family bonds as well as their humanity. It makes you recognize all of the Tasked as individual people on a level that is easy to ignore when someone uses the word slave. This is my first time experiencing such a profound shift in thinking about this time period and truly looking at it for what it was.
The Water Dancer is the perfect novel to usher you into a growing awareness of the insidiousness of white supremacy for anyone wanting to educate themselves and work towards becoming anti-racist. Mr. Coates’ lessons are palatable, made even more so by his storytelling and the vibrancy of his characters. More than that, The Water Dancer is a damn good story about the Underground Railroad and the risks all participants faced as well as one that puts a personal spin on the trauma that comes with the separation of families that was the everyday life of the Tasked. The Water Dancer is one of the most human novels I have read in a very long time.