The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Underground has given a sense of purpose to Hiram’s life. In the evening on the second day of the convention, Hiram sees Moses sitting on a rock. She greets him, and he goes to join her. Moses says she often goes back to her home in Maryland through her work as an Underground agent, and vows to one day go back there to live openly and freely. Usually she works alone, but she has a particular job where she needs “a man who runs at least as well as he writes.” Surprised, Hiram mentions some of the stories he has heard about Moses and her powers, and she laughs.
As this passage illustrates, Harriet Tubman was a legendary figure in her own time as well as after her death. Yet Coates’s decision to endow her with actual magic powers is controversial. Some might argue that the supernatural element diminishes Tubman’s extraordinary achievements, which in reality are all the more impressive considering she executed them as a disabled, self-emancipated woman, not a mystical figure.
Themes
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Moses then says she keeps her methods secret, and that the rumors about her powers don’t originate with her. She adds that the only name she answers to is Harriet. Hiram brings up Conduction, but Harriet brushes it off, asking if he is ready to take the job with her. Hiram confirms that he is, and Harriet says it will begin “soon enough.” The next morning, Hiram wakes to the sound of “commotion.” Otha is in a state of extreme distress. Hiram finds him wailing into Raymond’s shoulder, hardly able to stay standing. He announces that Bland is dead, and Lydia is back in the “coffin.” Raymond and some other men take Otha away, trying to calm him.
The terrible reality is that much of the work the Underground Railroad attempted—like most escape attempts in general—failed. The odds were so stacked against those trying to flee slavery that the fact that anyone succeeded was extremely unlikely. This devastating turn of events is reflective of an awful historical truth.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram finds a nearby satchel with newspaper articles containing the story of what happened, along with a letter from an Indiana-based Underground agent confirming the sad news. Hiram takes the papers back to Raymond, who is now sitting near Harriet and Corrine. Hiram rests for a while, and when he wakes up Otha is sitting by him in the tent. Hiram expresses his sincere apologies, and with great sadness Otha says that Bland was his “brother.” Although Otha’s heart has repeatedly been broken by being separated from his family, he thinks it’s important to always remain open to love.
In addition to crushing disappointment and fear, Otha is likely afflicted with a terrible sense of guilt in this moment. His insistence that Bland was his brother to him is a moving reversal of the usual situation in which the ties between actual blood relatives of different races were severed by racism.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Otha says that he has noticed Hiram struggling to gain control over his Conduction and wants to tell him a story that he hopes might help. He says that he met Lydia while he was in the depths of despair following Lambert’s death. A few days before the wedding, Otha found Lydia in a great deal of pain. The headman had tried to have sex with her, and after she resisted, he whipped her brutally. Otha vowed to kill the headman, but Lydia refused to let him. She told him that they couldn’t lose sight of their hopes for the future, could not let themselves die like this. In saying this, Lydia saved him. Otha stands up and resolutely repeats, “My Lydia will be free.”
It might not be immediately clear how Otha’s story will help Hiram gain control over Conduction. Yet the story is important insofar as it demonstrates how Otha is able to keep going in the midst of so much disappointment, grief, and uncertainty. Inspired by Lydia, he knows that there is no other choice but to keep fighting. He cannot afford to be discouraged; he must believe Lydia will be free.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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