The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Water Dancer. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born to Cheryl Waters and Paul Coates, a former local captain of the Black Panther Party and founder of Black Classic Press. Coates had seven siblings on his father’s side; his parents were strict and attentive, and his mother taught him to read at the age of four. Following high school, Coates attended Howard University, where his father worked as a research librarian. During his time at Howard, Coates began to work as a freelance journalist. It was during this time that he also met his future spouse, Kenyatta Matthews. After five years at Howard Coates left without graduating, and when they were both 24, he and Kenyatta had a son, Samori. Coates began publishing his journalism in a variety of outlets, including The Village Voice, Time, and The New York Times. He became a regular columnist for The Atlantic, and it is in this forum that some of his best-known essays have been published, including “The Case for Reparations” and an essay version of “Between the World and Me.” In 2008, Coates published a memoir that focused particularly on his youth and his relationship with his father entitled The Beautiful Struggle. This was followed by a bestselling memoir focusing on anti-black racism entitled Between the World and Me, which was published in 2015 to wide acclaim, and a collection of essays about the Obama years entitled We Were Eight Years in Power, published in 2017. Coates has been awarded numerous awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2015, and has taught at the City University of New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written a Black Panther series and a Captain America series for Marvel Comics. The Water Dancer is his first novel.
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Historical Context of The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer is filled with real details from history, although these details are often alluded to in a veiled manner, thereby reminding readers of the fictional status of the narrative. The novel is set in the mid-19th century, not long before the outbreak of the Civil War. Although the war does not take place within the narrative, there are many signs that it is coming. Chief among these is the tension between slaveholding states in the South and northern states where slavery has been made illegal. In Virginia, where Hiram is born, slavery is an existent but dying institution. This is generally not due to changing opinions (although Virginia’s proximity to the anti-slavery North does have an impact), but rather to agricultural and financial problems. The falling price of tobacco and the erosion of the heavily farmed land mean that the once-prosperous Virginia plantations are falling on hard times, and enslavers are selling enslaved people to the Deep South (what Hiram calls being sent Natchez-way, a reference to Natchez, Mississippi, which was a major slave-trading site). The novel also documents the intensifying abolitionist movement as well as the efforts to surreptitiously free people from slavery, mostly via the Underground Railroad. The depiction of the Underground Railroad is faithful in several ways; it was indeed a sprawling, unofficial network with different “stations” and “agents” spread across the country. The most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, features in the novel, under both her own name and the nickname “Moses” (a name by which the real Tubman was also known). The novel strays from historical accuracy by depicting Harriet as someone who, like Hiram, has the superhuman power of Conduction. A more realistic interpretation of the novel would see this power as a metaphor for the extraordinary courage, ingenuity, and success Tubman had in rescuing people from slavery.

Other Books Related to The Water Dancer

Like most contemporary literature about slavery, The Water Dancer draws on the narratives written by enslaved people about their experiences. Some of the most famous examples of this genre include Olaudah Equiano’s The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845), Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901). In the 20th and 21st centuries, several authors have employed magical realism in order to write about slavery. One especially significant example of this is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987). A more recent example is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), which, like The Water Dancer, retells the story of the Underground Railroad while adding key fictional (and at times magical/surreal) elements to the established historical account.
Key Facts about The Water Dancer
  • Full Title: The Water Dancer
  • When Written: 2008-2019
  • Where Written: Brooklyn, NY
  • When Published: 2019
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Lockless, a plantation in fictional Elm County, VA, and Philadelphia, PA, in the mid-19th century.
  • Climax: When Harriet conducts herself and Hiram from Philadelphia to Maryland
  • Antagonist: Howell and Maynard Walker, Ryland, and all other enslavers
  • Point of View: First-person retrospective narration from the point of view of Hiram Walker

Extra Credit for The Water Dancer

Rooted in history. Coates spent many years doing historical research for The Water Dancer, including visiting plantations in Virginia and the Deep South. He noticed that he was often one of the only black people on these plantation tours.   

Genre play. Coates has cited his lifelong love of genre fiction (including science fiction, fantasy, and comic books) as inspiring the more supernatural elements of The Water Dancer; yet he also wanted to avoid some of the chauvinist elements of traditional genre fiction, which often involve a male hero rescuing a woman in trouble.