The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Water Dancer can help.

The Water Dancer: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hiram realizes that what he just experienced was Conduction. Yet he doesn’t want to try it again, because every time he conducts it leaves him exhausted. Back at the house, he finds Otha and Raymond, who summon him to accompany them. Walking through the city streets, Raymond says that the law in Pennsylvania means that any enslaved person there must automatically be granted their freedom. Yet many who come do not know this, because their enslavers keep the law secret or lie to them about what will happen if they try to get free. 
One thing that becomes clear after Hiram moves to the North is that there is a tension between what is legal and what actually allowed to take place. This is, of course, also true in the South, where white people have total impunity to subject black people to whatever torments and injustices they want. Although there is theoretically more legal equality in the North, this does not always work out in practice.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
It is Saturday, and very hot. In the two days Hiram has been in the city, he has seen a few enslaved people. Although they tend to be dressed well, he can tell their status by their manner. They see a well-dressed black woman, held on one arm by a tall white man and on the other by a young boy. Raymond approaches her, addressing her as Mary Bronson and saying that he knows she’s “made a request” regarding her freedom. The white man angrily pulls Mary away, saying, “I mean to return with my property to my home country.” By now a small crowd has gathered, and Mary defiantly takes her child and stands behind Raymond, ignoring the white man’s demands that she follow him.
This scene demonstrates how the law does actually change the way that people behave in the North. For an enslaved woman to defy her enslaver in this way would be unthinkable in the South and being defended by three black men would not help (in fact, it would almost certainly make it even worse). Yet because the Underground agents in Philadelphia have the law on their side, they are empowered to act in a bolder way than would be possible in the South.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
The white man tells Raymond that if he was home he would “break [him] good.” Triumphantly, Raymond reminds him that he is not home. After, Hiram and the brothers take Mary and her son back to the house, where they serve Mary coffee and give her son wooden toys to play with. Hiram goes back to Mars’s bakery and apologizes for being rude the day before; he meets Mars’s wife, Hannah, and is given two free loaves of bread. Back at the house, Hiram serves the bread with cheese and spreads. Mary says her son is called Octavius, a name chosen by her former enslaver. While she tells them about her life, Hiram writes down her answers.
Here the importance of enslaved people’s testimony about their lives becomes apparent again. The Underground not only works to liberate black people from slavery, but also to record their stories, such that there is an account of the experiences and injustices that occur under slavery. Simply wanting to know Mary’s story is a powerful way of acknowledging her humanity.
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
Mary has a husband and another son in addition to Octavius. She was a cook. Her first master treated her with some appreciation because he liked her food, allowing her to work part-time for wages, but after he died a low white enslaver (the tall man) took over and started beating her. He eventually sold her husband and other son. She has been North before and thought about fleeing but has never actually done it until now. Mary starts crying and Otha embraces her, comforting her. He promises to find somewhere for her and Octavius to live within a few days. However, Mary says she doesn’t want any help, unless it is finding her husband and other son. She says she owes it to Octavius.
Mary’s initial reluctance to seek her freedom in the North and her refusal of Otha’s offer for help shows that the work of the Underground can be difficult. Perhaps, like Hiram, Mary still struggles to trust people—even the people who are her liberators. Another interpretation could be that she feels such a profound sense of guilt to be free while her husband and other son are enslaved that she cannot bear to accept any further help for herself.
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
Get the entire The Water Dancer LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Water Dancer PDF
On Monday Hiram takes a job in a woodworking shop, spending three days a week at work there and another three working for the Underground. He likes walking around the city but feels lonely. He identifies with Mary’s sentiment that freedom means nothing if a person is cut off from their loved ones. One day, Otha invites Hiram to have dinner at his mother’s house. Hiram travels by ferry across the Delaware River to get there. Just as he is arriving at the house, he experiences a vivid memory of Rose, and when he returns back to the present, Raymond and Otha’s mother, Viola, tells him he looks like he’s “seen the devil himself.”
Hiram’s time in Philadelphia is defined by a mix of relief and lingering guilt, horror, and loneliness. Considering what Hiram has gone through, this is hardly surprising. It also illustrates a difficult paradox in the lives of those who manage to escape from slavery. While none want to return to the brutality and degradation of their previous life, they might still long for their former homes because their loved ones remain there.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
The house is full of family members, including Mars and Hannah. Happy to be in this company, Hiram feels the emotional barriers within him begin to fall. he notices that the love here is different to the love that existed on the Street, which was always colored by the cruelty and degradation surrounding it. After dinner, one of the girls plays the piano, and her whole family watches her with intense pride. Hiram thinks about all the enslaved children whose talents are never encouraged this way, but instead stolen from them. Hiram keeps hearing the names Lambert and Lydia, and later, Otha tells him that Lambert was his brother and Lydia his wife. Lambert is dead, and Lydia still enslaved.
The White family may seem happy, whole, and thriving, but the mention of Lambert and Lydia serves as a reminder that they, too, are a family broken by slavery. The loss of Lambert means that the family will never be truly whole, while the agony of knowing that Lydia is still enslaved while the rest of the family are free likely produces the same sense of guilt in Otha that both Hiram and Mary have been experiencing. 
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
Otha and Lydia have three children. Otha was born into slavery, but both his parents managed to escape separately and then reunite in the North. In addition to Raymond and Lambert, he has one sister, Patsy. The first time Viola escaped, she, Otha, and Lambert were caught and brought back. However, she managed to escape punishment by blaming the whole thing on her husband (who remained free), and eventually fled again, this time leaving Lambert and Otha behind. They were both sold South, which is where Lambert died and where Otha met Lydia. For a long time, Otha resented and even hated Violet.
This passage explores one of the most traumatic ways in which the ability of enslaved people to act according to their principles was limited. With four children, Viola was faced with an impossible choice: she would not be able to escape with all four, and thus would have to choose to keep her family together in slavery or flee with only some of her children.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Otha himself managed to flee and came to Philadelphia in search of his family. When he was reunited with Raymond, they didn’t even recognize each other. It took time for them to discover that they were brothers. Now, he thinks back on why Viola only took the younger children when she fled for the second time, leaving behind her older boys. She’d told them, “I can only carry so many, and them only so far.”
Family reunification remains little more than a dream for the vast majority of those whose relatives have been torn from them by slavery. Yet even in the rare cases where families are able to reunite, this process unearths deeply difficult traumas, as demonstrated by the story of the White family.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon