The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the dark pit, Hiram loses all sense of time, unable to distinguish between night and day or detect how much time has passed. He starts hallucinating and has one vision that he eventually comes to realize is not an illusion, but his own memory. He is young; it is the first year he is assigned to work for Maynard. Maynard asked Hiram to gather together a large group of Tasked; he then told them that they were due to race each other for Maynard’s entertainment. The “humiliation” of this got even worse when, to Hiram’s surprise, Maynard informed him that he was supposed to race too. Hiram ran faster than all the others but tripped over a rock, leaving him unable to walk properly for three weeks.
This passage further emphasizes the idea that part of what makes Hiram’s life so extraordinarily painful is the fact that he at times had the false impression that he was of a different social status than was really the case. Because he is related to them, he feels an affinity with Howell and Maynard, a feeling that is not returned. Of course, it is arguably true that no enslaved person believed that they deserved to be treated as less than human, and in this sense, Hiram is typical, not exceptional.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Back in the pit, a long, formless amount of time passes, before Hiram sees a light suddenly appear. A ladder is thrown down to him, and a voice tells him to come out. Hiram climbs out and stands in front of an “ordinary” man, the person who bought him. They stand in a clearing in the woods and, strangely, the man has placed two wooden chairs and table there. The man throws Hiram a package containing some bread, which Hiram eats. After doing so Hiram suddenly feels the intensity of his own hunger, and without asking devours more packages of bread and drinks from a jar of water.
There is a surreal, dream-like quality to this part of the novel. The presence of this unfamiliar man, the lack of conversation, the strange fact that there are a table and chairs placed in the middle of the forest, all make it seem as if this passage does not quite take place in reality. Of course, Hiram’s tormented state of mind could affect how he is perceiving the scene, making it seem even more surreal than is actually the case.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
There is a light in the distance, and as it comes nearer Hiram realizes it is a wagon. As it approaches them, the ordinary man tells Hiram to get inside. The other black men in the wagon are not wearing chains, but look “broken.” They drive for an hour, and Hiram thinks about the fact that the black men in the wagon outnumber the ordinary man, who is the only white person there. However, Hiram reasons that “white men in Virginia are never really alone.” Eventually, the wagon pulls up alongside three other carriages.
Hiram’s observation about the black men outnumbering the white man is important. It was usually the case that enslaved people physically outnumbered enslavers, and this was one of many reasons why enslavers were constantly afraid of uprisings. As a result, they constructed an elaborate system of control in order to maintain their total supremacy.
Themes
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
A group of low white men get out of the carriages, and Hiram feels a sense of horror as he thinks of the familiar brutality of this class of men. The ordinary man gets up and begins listing the “crimes” of the black men in the wagon, which include trying to kill their enslavers, trying to run away, and beating someone who stole from them. He says that they are now in the care of “these Virginia gentlemen” (the low whites), but that they will be given a head start to run. If the black men can outrun the low whites, they will be granted their freedom. However, if they are caught, they will be at the mercy of the low whites.
One of the ways in which enslaved people were dissuaded from rebelling was that any sign of infraction or disobedience, no matter how minor, was used as an excuse for horrifically sadistic punishments. This sent a message to other enslaved people that if they were anything less than totally subservient, they would be brutally punished.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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The ordinary man drives off in his wagon. The black men are left frozen with shock and fear. One of the low whites walks over to the black men and whacks one of them over the head with a cudgel, telling the others to start running. They do so, going alone in different directions. Hiram wonders what he is running toward; he feels that the North is no more than a “word,” whereas the Underground was clearly a myth invented by Georgie. Yet despite everything he has gone through, his desire for freedom remains powerful, and propels him forward. As he runs, he hears a shot in the distance, which is perhaps the sound of one of the other men being killed.
Hiram’s decision to run despite the fact that he is not going toward any particular direction is a significant metaphor. It represents the way in which the desire for freedom continued to live inside the hearts of enslaved people, despite the fact that they had no realistic reason to hope that they would ever experience it.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram falls into mud and feels a kind of relief that he doesn’t have to keep running. Voices around him tell him to get up, but he then feels a club come down hard on his back. While he is beaten, Hiram leaves his body, disappearing into his own memories. He is brought back to the ordinary man, bound and blindfolded, and put in the wagon again. He is placed in the pit again and forced to participate in the “hunt” over and over. He wonders if he has died and is in hell. At the same time, being forced to run every night is making him stronger. In a strange way, it also gives him a taste of freedom.
Again, this whole section of the novel could be read as a metaphor for the way that enslaved people managed to endure horrific brutality and keep surviving even though the goal of this survival was unclear. While the enslaved had no reason to expect that they would ever be free, the desire for freedom remained, and this in itself was a source of profound power.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram also grows more skilled at making it difficult for the hunters to find him, particularly by using his extraordinary memory. Yet ultimately, this is not enough. He is running, but what he really needs to do is “fly.” He thinks about the times when he has been able to move through space after seeing the blue light. He knows that each of these times has been connected to memory, and in particular to the memory of Rose. He wonders if the power is “in some way related to the block in [his] memory,” and thus focuses as hard as he can on his memories of Rose as he runs. 
This passage further explores the idea that the enslaved possessed mystical, extraordinary powers that were somehow connected to the extreme degradation they were forced to endure. Indeed, everything about this passage is exaggerated, surreal, and mysterious, somewhat like a religious myth.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Hiram can hear the voices of the men pursuing him, and as he runs his foot catches on something, sending him flying to the ground. He calls out the lyrics of a song he remembers from his days at Lockless, singing not to the men around him but to someone else. As he sings, the woods “fold[…] back on themselves,” and Hiram experiences a sudden vision his childhood. He sees himself as a child and wants to comfort that little boy. He tries to stand, but the pain in his ankle is unbearable. Men surround him, but not the men he thought. Hawkins is standing above him, telling him to stop shouting so loud.
Once again, here Hiram taps into the power of memory in order to help save him in a moment of utter abjection and despair. Simply recalling the lyrics of a song he remembers from childhood reminds him of his own humanity and his own history, and in doing so provides him strength and hope to keep going.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon