The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
While waiting for updates on the mission, Raymond, Otha, and Hiram set off for the big meeting of abolitionists in New York. This is one of the only occasions when members of the Underground meet with those working on the official, legal fight to end slavery. During their journey to New York, Moses joins them. Seeing her, Hiram is so awed that he can barely speak. Raymond calls her Harriet, and apparently this is the name she likes best. The next day they arrive in the campsite near the Canadian border where the convention is being held.
The convention depicted here seemingly does not represent a particular historical occurrence so much as an amalgamation of several similar events. These conventions were important sites in the history of radical social movements in the US, including abolition, racial equality, feminism, and labor rights.
Themes
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Walking through the convention, Hiram hears orators speaking about the rights of women, indigenous people, and child laborers. One person speaks in favor of trade unions, another in favor of communes where marriage is replaced by “free love.” Feeling overwhelmed, he sits against a tree, until a woman a little older than him comes up to him and greets him by name. She introduces herself as Kessiah, saying that she also used to live at Lockless and that Rose used to leave Hiram with her to look after. She is Thena’s daughter. She and Hiram walk together, and she recalls happy memories of growing up with Thena and Big John, back when the family was still together.
Although Hiram has not been reunited with Rose, he is able to access parts of her through encounters with other people who knew her. The fact that Kessiah used to look after Hiram and is also the daughter of Hiram’s surrogate mother Thena movingly illustrates the ways in which enslaved people formed improvised familial structures in the wake of family separation.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Kessiah recalls that Hiram was “always different,” always watching people, just like he was just then when she found him at the convention. She says it is strange to think of her time growing up in slavery and remember being happy, but that this is how she felt. Everything changed when Big John came down with a fever and died. At least Thena and her children could comfort each other, but when they were separated even that solace was taken away. Hiram tells Kessiah that Thena looked after him, adding, “For me, Thena was the best part of Lockless.”
Kessiah and Hiram’s reunion is, unsurprisingly, bittersweet. As we have seen throughout the novel, reencounters with loved ones following separation can be a joyous relief but is also an inherent reminder of all that has been lost and destroyed. 
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Kessiah cries and tells Hiram that after she and her siblings were sold off, she never saw them again. Most of the siblings were taken toward Natchez, but she was brought to Maryland. There, she met a freeman who began working toward buying her freedom. However, their plans fell through when they were both taken to be sold at auction. Moses saved Kessiah, and she has been travelling with her ever since. This is how she heard about Hiram. Kessiah embraces Hiram warmly and asks how Rose is doing.
Kessiah’s story highlights the horribly unpredictable and chaotic nature of life as an enslaved person, one in which all dreams and plans can be thwarted on an enslaver’s whim. While she was fortunate that Moses rescued her, the vast majority of enslaved people obviously did not have the same luck.
Themes
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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Hiram keeps walking, this time past jugglers and acrobats. During dinner, a group of black people get together around a campfire and start singing “the songs that could only be made down in the coffin.” Hiram thinks about how slavery is the root of all evil, as revealed by the orators comparing factory work, alcohol consumption, and childrearing to slavery. Ending slavery is thus a chance to “remake” the whole world. A messenger approaches Hiram and hands him a letter from Bland. Hiram brings it to Otha. The letter states that Bland has Lydia and the children; they have escaped Alabama and are currently in Indiana. Otha is awestruck.
Hiram’s belief that the end of slavery would be a chance to “remake” the world reflects the optimism felt by many 19th-century abolitionists. However, the fact that so many of the people at the convention compare other evils to slavery could be interpreted in a different light. Arguably, these comparisons betray a trivialization of slavery and a re-centering of non-enslaved white people where the primary focus should be on the enslaved.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon