The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 24 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In Maryland, the sun is rising. Hiram knows they might not be safe out in the field, so he picks up Harriet and runs into the woods with her. He finds a safe place to leave her then runs deeper into the woods, planning to find her again later. He spends the day completely still, watching. He sees two low whites going out for a hunt, and a mix of Quality and Tasked children playing together. Once night falls, he goes back to greet Harriet, who apologizes for collapsing after the Conduction. She says she has made that journey many times and doesn’t know why this time had such a strong impact on her.
The exhaustion and weakness that both Harriet and Hiram experience after Conduction can be seen as a metaphor for the costs associated with remembering. Although memory is depicted as having an awesome power in the novel, it is also very painful. Accessing the past can be draining and traumatic—yet this difficulty does not mean that people should shy away from it.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
They walk through the woods until they see a cabin in the distance, which Harriet calls “our place.” She says it would be best to answer any questions Hiram has before going there, because there likely won’t be time after. Hiram says that his grandmother, Santi Bess, was “a pure-blood African” with a talent for storytelling. One day, Bess told Rose that she was going somewhere Rose couldn’t follow. That night, she disappeared, taking 48 enslaved people with her. All of them were “pure-bloods” like her. Hiram has mixed feelings about the story, because Rose was left behind and sold off.
The new detail in the story of Santi Bess—that all the people she liberated from Lockless were “pure-blood” Africans—emphasizes the idea that Conduction is a spiritual power passed down to enslaved people from their African ancestors. At the same time, “pure-blood” is an interesting term, particularly considering that captives would not have thought of themselves as one African race, but rather a jumble of very different nations and peoples.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Harriet likens Conduction to the ability to see bridges between islands that others can’t, and to journey across those bridges. She says she’s heard that captives of slave ships would leap into the water and be conducted back to their homes in Africa. Hiram admits that he struggles to remember his childhood, and Harriet asks if he’s ever thought that he might be stopping himself from remembering. Hiram doesn’t think so, but Harriet says that she herself sometimes feels the temptation to forget. Ultimately, however, she “cannot help but remember.” It took her time to gain control over all the visions and voices she sees.
Again, the novel emphasizes that memory is not easy, but deeply challenging and painful. The fact that even Harriet struggles with her memories emphasizes that it can take an enormous amount of strength and willpower to face the past. Yet again, this difficulty does not mean it is not worth it. In fact, it is actually part of why memory is so important.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram admits that he feels Conduction is “chancy,” and he can’t predict when it will happen or where it will take him. However, Harriet points out that every time Hiram has experienced Conduction it has involved water. Hiram is stunned. He asks Harriet why she didn’t use Conduction to save Lydia. She explains that she can’t use it to travel to places where she’s never been, and she has never been to Alabama.
This passage provides several crucial details that help fill out the novel’s depiction of Conduction. Indeed, it is important that these details are limitations—it would be a little too easy if Harriet and Hiram were simply able to travel wherever they wanted in an instant.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
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Harriet and Hiram go into the cabin; there are enslaved people waiting inside. Harriet introduces Hiram to their “host,” then to her brothers, Ben and Henry. The fourth person present is Henry’s wife, a woman with shaved hair named Jane. Hiram is struck by the way they all laugh, which is very different to how enslaved people normally laugh. He thinks that it is like they are in the North already. Harriet says that there is a “tradition” in her rescues that “none shall turn back.” She gives instructions to those present, saying that they will depart the following night. She tells Hiram that her other brother, Robert, will also be coming, but that he wants as much time as possible to spend with his pregnant wife before he joins them.
One of the most famous details about Harriet Tubman is that, on at least one occasion, she was transporting a group of enslaved people to freedom when one of the men grew terrified and tried to return to the plantation. Harriet pointed a gun at him and told him, “You go on or die.” This incident is alluded to with the phrase she uses here, “None shall turn back.”
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram will be responsible for getting Robert. He walks back through the woods, reaching Robert’s cabin before sunrise. He waits outside for Robert’s signal, and when it comes, approaches Robert and asks him in coded language if he is ready to depart. Robert says he is. Hiram tells him to meet back in the same place at nightfall. However, when he returns, Robert does not come. Hiram knows that he should probably just leave, but ever since Bland’s death he can’t bear the idea of leaving anyone behind. He enters the cabin, and finds a woman, Mary, yelling at Robert, accusing him of running off to a social with another woman. 
The scene inside Robert’s cabin provides an important reminder that even in the midst of the terrifying drama of an escape attempt enslaved people were just that: people. Like all humans, they experienced insecurity, pettiness, jealousy, and resentment, as demonstrated by Mary’s paranoia that Robert is trying to go to a social with another woman.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Robert claims that he is just going to visit family, but Hiram intervenes and explains that this isn’t the truth. He says that Robert is about to be sold, and fleeing is the only way to avoid that fate. He knows that he is violating the rules of the Underground by speaking like this. Yet he continues, saying that thanks to the Underground, there is a chance Robert and Mary will be able to see each other again. He promises, “We will not rest until you and your Robert are brought into reunion.” Mary begins moaning in the same way Sophia did when she and Hiram were captured. Hiram tells her his name, and Mary finally relents. She and Robert kiss tenderly.
Hiram’s decision to violate the rules of the Underground, while risky, appears to have paid off in this instance. Yet just because Mary is able to understand let Robert go, this does not mean that her knowledge of where he is really going may not thwart either of them later on. Hiram’s risk could end up seriously backfiring.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Once Hiram and Robert leave, Robert confesses that he never planned to go back to Mary. They don’t really have a child together; if she is pregnant, it is by their enslaver. He says, “I’d be damned if I was gon be raising some white man’s child.” He admits that when Hiram spoke it reminded him that he really does love Mary, but he can’t get over the fact that she is pregnant by another man. Robert laments that enslaved people don’t have anything “pure.” Hiram points out that white people don’t either, but at least black people don’t waste time pretending to be pure, when nothing truly pure exists.
Just as Mary’s human flaws were revealed earlier in this chapter, now Robert’s are as well. His struggle to deal with the fact that Mary is pregnant with their enslaver’s child could be seen as sympathetic or objectionable, depending on one’s position. Of course, it is undeniable that men like Robert were placed in horrible positions. Yet they still had a responsibility to remain supportive of women, like Mary, who were raped by enslavers.
Themes
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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