The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Having returned to Philadelphia, Hiram goes back to his old routine. He starts to see Kessiah regularly. At the beginning of October, Harriet asks to meet with him. When Hiram tells her that he is not coping well with Bland’s death, she reminds him that they are involved in a war, and that Bland was ready to sacrifice his life because he could not bear to live in the world the way it is. She adds that they will all have to die someday, although she prays that her death will not be at the hands of enslavers. She confesses that she doesn’t believe in her “own miracles,” but that she has seen others—not just Conduction, but even one man who “self-resurrected.”
Like Corrine’s crew, Harriet also sees the fight for freedom as a war. However, her take is a little more philosophical than Hawkins’s seems to be. For Harriet, freedom is a goal so important and noble that it goes without saying that one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for it—particularly considering that everyone is mortal, and death is inevitable. This seems to be a useful compromise between Corrine’s harsh position and Hiram’s more sentimental one.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram and Harriet then discuss their upcoming mission in Maryland. She needs passes for two people, then a letter written by an enslaved person that contains a special signal. She tells Hiram to send the letter tomorrow, and that they will set off in two weeks. She says the journey will take one night, which leaves Hiram confused, but Harriet only smiles.
The Underground works through combining the skills and resources of many different people from vastly different walks of life. This is well illustrated in the collaboration between Hiram and Harriet.
Themes
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Two weeks later, Hiram meets Harriet in the middle of the night. Harriet looks out over the river and says, “For Micajah Bland.” Then she keeps walking, leaning on her walking stick. She tells Hiram that they must always remember, and that memory is the route from slavery to freedom. Suddenly Hiram realizes that they are in the water, or rather, almost hovering over it. Harriet assures him that everything will be fine, saying, “It’s just like dancing.” A powerful “chain of memory” materializes between them, connecting them in a way Hiram doesn’t fully understand. He looks out and sees spirits on the river, including a boy who he somehow knows is named Abe
This is the most explicit, detailed depiction of Conduction that has occurred thus far in the novel, and this helps the reader to understand what Conduction actually is. At the same time, Coates’s description of Conduction remains so lyrical that trying to delineate how it actually works seems beside the point. The most important part of this passage is what Harriet says about the importance of memory, and the fact that she links Conduction to dancing.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Harriet remarks that Hiram never knew Abe, but will know him now, through Conduction. She recalls how she was sent to trap varmints in the swamps at only seven years old. When she was nine, she was taken to work in the house, and was beaten daily for any mistakes she made. Abe grew up an orphan; his mother died in childhood and his father was sold when he was very young. He was a natural rebel, and Harriet learned Conduction from him. Enslavers and low whites would try to restrain him, but Abe always escaped, humiliating them. A white man told Harriet to help catch Abe and then threw a rock at him, but Abe dodged the rock and it hit Harriet instead. 
Conduction is a way of moving through space, but it also involves moving through time. During this Conduction, Harriet evokes images of the past such that they are present in some phantasmatic, half-real and half-spiritual manner. This reflects the way in which people’s own histories are always real and not real at the same time. A person’s history makes them who they are, but will always have a mythical, intangible quality, accessible only through recollection.
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 Water Dancer PDF
Harriet is now burning with powerful green light, and Hiram cannot see the water anymore. After being struck, Harriet had powerful, disturbing visions about slavery, and saw a whole “legion of Abes” ready to go to war. When she awoke, she saw her mother crying, and she learned that she had been unconscious for months. It took a long time for her to recover, but she did with a determination to destroy slavery forever. Harriet addresses Abe now, telling him he was the first person who inspired her to fight for freedom. The green light fades, and where the sky had been cloudy it is now clear, with the North Star glowing brightly above. They tumble to the ground, to a field surrounded by enslaved people.
The story of young Harriet being hit by a weight that an enslaver aimed to throw at another enslaved person attempting to run away is true. She did not receive proper medical treatment and the injury permanently disabled her, leaving her with health problems that affected her throughout her life. Perhaps significantly, these problems are not mentioned in the novel.
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