The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
That night, Hiram realizes that he will need to talk to Moses if he is ever going to be able to properly understand—and gain control over—Conduction. The next day, he, Bland, Otha, and Raymond discuss the preparations for Lydia’s rescue. Bland explains that they need extremely precise passes for Lydia and the children. Hiram wants to see a sample document from Lydia’s enslaver, Daniel McKiernan, but there is none available. However, there is another option. The son of the man who once enslaved the entire White family, named Elon Simpson, lives part-time in Philadelphia. Elon is respected within Philadelphia society, yet still does business with McKiernan. 
Shifting attitudes toward the slave trade are not the main focus of the novel, but continually play an important role in the background of the main narrative. At this point in American history, opinion had shifted in the North to the point that it was considered a mark against one’s respectability to be involved with slavery. However, this does not necessarily mean that “respectable” gentlemen like Simpson ceased to profit from it—they just kept it secret.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
That night, Bland takes Hiram to Simpson’s house in Washington Square. This fancy neighborhood is built on the mass grave of enslaved people who died of fever, back in the days when slavery was still legal in Pennsylvania. Hiram asks Bland how he came to be involved in the Underground, and Bland explains that as a younger man, he went to the South and fought in the Seminole War, where he witnessed horrifying atrocities. He realized that whatever problems he had were “dwarfed by even greater struggles.”
The fact that the wealthy neighborhood of Washington Square is literally built on the bodies of dead enslaved people is almost too neat a metaphor. Yet the reality is that it is not even a literary invention, but a true part of Philadelphia’s history.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
A white servant whom Bland addresses as Chalmers comes out of the house. He hands a package of documents to Bland, who insists that they go inside to check them. Chalmers refuses, but Bland threatens him, and Chalmers reluctantly agrees. Inside, Bland says that the papers aren’t good enough and that they need more. On Bland’s indication, Hiram begins looking through Chalmers’s desk, but can find no correspondence with McKiernan. Eventually he and Bland realize that Simpson keeps his correspondence with enslavers in a separate, locked chest. Hiram uses the letters with McKiernan to forge the passes, and Bland sets off for Alabama shortly after.   
The separate chest within which Simpson keeps his correspondence with enslavers is very telling. It is possible that Simpson is worried about someone finding this correspondence (with good reason, as evidenced by Bland and Hiram’s presence in his house). Yet it is also possible that this separate chest is a manifestation of Simpson’s own guilty conscience and his efforts to assuage it.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
This is “the most daring rescue anyone in Philadelphia ha[s] ever undertaken.” The journey into Alabama and back again will be winding and long, and the fact that it is August doesn’t help, as it is better for the Underground to work during winter, when the nights are longer. However, rumor has it that McKiernan is in financial trouble and is selling off enslaved people, so they have no choice but to act immediately.
The constant (and intensifying) threat of enslaved people being sold adds a terrifying urgency to everything that the Underground does. It is also a reminder of their ultimate powerlessness against the whims of enslavers.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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