The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Four months after arriving at Bryceton, Hiram leaves. He, Hawkins, and Bland set off, planning to take a slightly longer route in order to avoid areas where Ryland’s Hounds are known to be particularly active. They board a train, which at that time does not have a separate car for black people. This is because “The Quality [keep] their Tasked ones close the way a lady keeps her clutch, closer even.” The journey takes two days. When they arrive in Philadelphia, a black man greets Hiram, introducing himself as Raymond White. They drive away in a carriage. Hiram looks at Raymond, whose dress is “impeccable” yet who carries a profound sadness in his expression.
The detail about there not being racial segregation on trains in this period is significant. Prior to Emancipation, there was more proximity and intimacy between white and black people, even if this proximity and intimacy was characterized by brutal exploitation. In the haze of racist panic that followed abolition, segregation was used to maintain white supremacy in the absence of slavery.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram gazes at the people in the city. Although most of the rich are white and most of the poor are black, Hiram is stunned to see that this is not always the case, and that there are black people dressed in more luxury than he’d ever seen on Howell. They arrive at a house where Bland and Hawkins are already waiting, drinking coffee with another black man who Hiram immediately sees must be related to Raymond. He introduces himself as Otha White. Hawkins instructs the White brothers to take care of Hiram, whom he calls “the genuine article.” He explains that Hiram “don’t know nothing,” and they will have to teach him. Hawkins says goodbye, noting that he and Hiram may never see each other again.
The other Underground agents treat Hiram with a curious mix of admiration and patronizing belittlement, as shown by Hawkins’s statements that Hiram is the “genuine article” but also that he “don’t know nothing.” Indeed, this blend of two contradictory attitudes is not dissimilar to the mix of respect and dismissal Hiram received from white people while he was enslaved at Lockless.
Themes
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Otha takes Hiram to his bedroom, which he feels is a kind of “heaven.” Later, they have dinner at a local tavern. Otha lives in the same house as Hiram, whereas Raymond lives with his wife and children. Hiram wakes early the next morning to wander around the city. He goes into a bakery owned by a friendly black man who introduces himself as Mars. Mars says that he can tell Hiram is new and guesses that he is staying with Otha. Hiram is suspicious, but Mars gives him a piece of gingerbread for free, telling him they are “family.” 
Hiram’s suspicious attitude toward Mars indicates that it will not be easy for him to shed the ways of thinking and acting he has inherited from life under slavery. There is an ease, dignity, and trust to life in Philadelphia that is still very unfamiliar to Hiram. It may take him a while to be able to trust others, even kind black people like Mars. 
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram keeps walking. It occurs to him that if he wanted to, he could “abandon the Underground and disappear into the city.” He sits down to read the newspaper and keep eating the gingerbread, but as he takes a bite he is gripped by a sudden memory, transported all the way back to Lockless. He is in the kitchen in the house, and a woman asks him why he is always so quiet. She gives him a piece of gingerbread even though she is making it for Howell, explaining, “Family got to watch out for each other […] And furthermost, as I see it, all of this belongs to you anyway.” Hiram cannot remember who the woman is but can picture her smile with utmost clarity. The memory dissolves.
This scene is reminiscent of one of the most well-known moments in literary history, from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In this novel, the narrator bites into a madeleine (a traditional French dessert) and this sensation triggers an involuntary memory from his childhood. The exact same thing happens to Hiram here, evoking memory’s capacity to transport a person through time and space. 
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
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