The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hiram starts conducting more frequently. He realizes that the woman who sneakily gave him the gingerbread was Emma. He feels he is beginning to understand something, but also finds Conduction difficult, as each time it leaves him filled with sadness. He is beginning to no longer feel free, and one day decides to leave the Underground. He walks to the docks and stands near the sailors, who seem the freest of anyone in the city. He hopes one of them will approach him and offer him work, but they don’t. He keeps wandering around until it gets dark, when he realizes he has no plan or resources. Resigning himself to life in the Underground, Hiram heads home, but is struck on the head by a white man and passes out.
Hiram’s fascination with the sailors is significant, as their way of life is defined by a form of freedom that involves moving across bodies of water. As has been made clear thus far, water, movement, and freedom are connected in a powerful way for Hiram, as well as for enslaved people more generally. This is in part because one of the most significant forms of rebellion by enslaved people involved jumping from slave ships into the water. 
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
Hiram wakes up chained, blindfolded, and gagged in the back of a moving cart. He is sure that he has been caught by some of the Hounds who live up North and kidnap black people on the street in order to sell them into slavery. He can hear men laughing and a girl next to him crying. After driving or a while, they stop and Hiram is made to sit against a tree, still blindfolded, while the white men eat by a campfire. However, suddenly shots ring out, and Hiram is freed from his chains by Micajah Bland. Two other men stand with him. Hiram is overcome with a sudden, uncontrollable fury, and kicks the corpses of the dead white man until he is too exhausted to kick anymore. 
The uncontrollable rage Hiram feels toward the white man who kidnapped him comes as no surprise. Having experienced freedom, Hiram knows exactly how much he has to lose by being captured and re-enslaved. The terrible reality was that this was a fairly common occurrence for free black people in both the North and South. Kidnapping black people, even those who were “officially” free, was a highly lucrative business.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram now realizes that the voice inside him that told him to flee the Underground has always been within him. It is a desire for freedom, but a selfish one. Now it is overtaken by a commitment to family. Led by Bland, they walk toward a woman who checks that Hiram is ok. She asks him what kind of agent lets himself be seized by hounds like that. After the woman walks away, one of the men Hiram doesn’t know asks if he knows who she was, and then tells him it was Moses.
The horror of slavery is so intense than no one could be blamed for wanting to preserve their own freedom at all costs after having escaped it. Indeed, this is what makes the work of the formerly enslaved Underground Railroad agents so admirable. Having successfully escaped slavery themselves, they had the courage and selflessness to go back to rescue others. 
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Moses has other nicknames, including The General, The Night, and the Vanisher. She is the “living master of Conduction.” As they drive back toward Philadelphia, Bland tells Hiram that by shooting the men who kidnapped him, they will “send a message” to others who do the same thing. Suddenly, Hiram admits to Bland that he was in love with Sophia, and that he often thinks she should have become the Underground agent instead of him. He cries, saying that Sophia deserved better. Bland says that the pain Hiram feels now is the pain of a whole world of black people whose lives have been torn apart by slavery. Hiram thanks Bland for saving him, but Bland says there’s no need—the Underground gives his life meaning.
Bland is the only white person in the novel who appears in a truly admirable light. This reflects the reality that in this period of time, the vast majority white people were either complicit with or actively perpetrating slavery and racism. Even many abolitionists, like Corrine, had slightly suspicious motivations and methods even while they helped advance the cause of freedom. For a white person to act in the genuinely noble and altruistic manner of Bland was extremely rare.
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
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The next morning, Raymond notes that although he trusts Bland deeply, he doesn’t approve of his vengeful murders of the white men who kidnapped Hiram. He believes that Bland owes Hiram an apology. Raymond then admits that he knows where Sophia is: Lockless. Corrine persuaded Howell to take Sophia back. The Underground has not gone to rescue her yet because of its “rules,” but that they are not going to leave her there. In fact, they have already determined a method for getting her out.
One of the most important aspects of the novel’s depiction of the Underground Railroad is its emphasis on the fact that the Railroad was not a coherent, consistent organization, but rather something of a mess of conflicting ideologies, methods, and positions.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon