The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Over the next few days, Hiram’s mind remains fixated on Sophia. He fantasizes about her being in Philadelphia and experiencing life there with him. Two weeks after his kidnapping and rescue, he goes to meet Raymond, who is alone at his home. Raymond shows Hiram two crates of documents, including intelligence reports and letters. Hiram is stunned—it seems as if practically everyone who has ever been rescued by the Philadelphia Underground has their story documented in there. Raymond says that Hiram deserves to be reunited with Sophia and reiterates that they have a plan involving Bland to get her out. However, the timing is bad, as they are also working on rescuing Lydia from Alabama.
While the Underground’s delay in rescuing Sophia might seem unbearable to Hiram, Raymond’s words illustrate why it is not as callous as it might seem. Hiram’s focus is understandably on Sophia, but the reality is that everyone in the Underground has relatives who they want to rescue from slavery. Each of these cases is the very definition of urgent, and thus it becomes difficult to figure out how to prioritize the Underground’s limited resources.
Themes
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Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Raymond says that someone needs to help Bland get to Alabama in good time, but the mission is so dangerous that no one will force Hiram to do it. Sophia will be rescued regardless. Hiram says he will do it. Raymond smiles, and permits Hiram to spend the rest of the day looking through the documents, a pursuit Hiram finds as thrilling as reading a novel. He eats dinner with Raymond’s family and stays the night. He is inspired by the documents and understands why Raymond has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of freedom. He also understands why the Underground is so bold: because there are always people who have been bolder and succeeded.
This passage explores another reason why the testimonies of enslaved people are so important. The thought of escaping a plantation might seem impossible to most people, and indeed, there is a whole brutal structure in place to convince enslaved people that they could never successfully escape. Yet the testimonies of those who have successfully done so—and the courage and ingenuity required—refutes this idea of impossibility.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram is thrilled by all the stories of rebellion, from the most minor to the most daring. He sees “magic” contained with all of them. The stories are miraculous testaments to the courage, determination, and ingenuity of the many who have seized their own freedom. The next day, Hiram goes to Bland’s house. The kidnapping has left him nervous about traveling through the city. On the way, he walks past a family of poor black people. He remembers Otha warning those freed by the Underground that without proper support, they will likely end up destitute the people in front of Hiram here.
One of the most terrible truths about the absence of slavery (both in the North in this period and in the whole country following Emancipation) is that it did not necessarily guarantee freedom. While black people may not have been literally enslaved, economic destitution could end up as little more than slavery by another name. Moreover, racism actively worked to keep free black people in a state of financial ruin. 
Themes
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Related Quotes
Bland’s sister Laura answers the door. Hiram immediately begins discussing the missions that lie before them. Bland says that rescuing Sophia will be straightforward, because Corrine will help them. Hiram suddenly feels a powerful surge of anger at Corrine, who left Sophia in the “coffin” and pretended not to know where she was. This anger brings on the blue light of Conduction, but before long Hiram resurfaces in Bland’s house, albeit feeling “disorientated.” Hiram eats dinner with Bland and Laura, then joins Bland for a walk around the city.
While Conduction is theoretically something that could allow Hiram to travel through space in service of the Underground, at the moment it is more of a hindrance than an asset. Hiram certainly has extraordinary powers, but without mastery of these powers, it is as if he remains a tool of someone else’s control.
Themes
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Hiram asks why Moses isn’t going down South to save Lydia, considering she has greater control over her Conduction, but Bland explains that Moses “has her own promises to keep.” He then explains that he met Corrine while she was only a teenager and living in New York for her schooling. She would sneak out and attend abolitionist lectures, which is where she and Bland met. Bland notes that Corrine has made enormous “sacrifices” for the abolitionist cause. If her betrayal of her class was ever revealed, she would be subjected to unimaginably brutal punishment. They stop outside Hiram’s house, and Hiram realizes that Bland has walked him home. Bland puts his arm around Hiram, and they laugh together.
Corrine’s commitment to the Underground is measured in the sacrifices (both actual and potential) that she makes for it. Bland’s, meanwhile, is measured by the devotion and generosity with which he acts toward other agents, in additions to the sacrifices he makes. The contrast between them shows that the Underground works by combining a variety of people with different approaches and motivations.
Themes
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Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon