The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Like all enslaved people, Hiram wakes before sunrise. He spends the day helping others with a variety of jobs, going wherever he is needed. There are fewer enslaved people working in the house these days, indicating that even those in the house are at risk of being sent to Natchez. Four months after Hiram (now 13) started working in the house, Howell hosts a celebration to celebrate the fall harvest. He listens to Ella, the head cook, complain to Pete, another enslaved man working in the house, about the white people. She says, “They don’t think about nothing and nobody […] It’s wrong.”
As if being subjected to the daily horrors of slavery was not bad enough, enslaved people must endure an additional psychic trauma: the constant threat of being sold and having one’s life be made even worse. The fact that being sold is worse than staying is true in two senses. Being sold means leaving behind loved ones, familiarity, and a sense of home; it also usually means going to the Deep South, where conditions are more brutal.
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Pete notes that the problem is falling tobacco prices, which have caused the “old” slaveholding families to move south, to Natchez, Baton Rouge, or Tennessee. Those who remain are left on edge, not knowing what will happen next. The enslaved people in the house are tense all day, but by the time of the party they all put on fake smiles. Hiram observes the guests, including Maynard’s tutor, Mr. Fields, and the women wearing extravagant clothes. The guests play cards, eat cake, and get drunk on cider.
Slavery involved horrifyingly intense physical labor, but also traumatizing emotional labor, too. No matter what suffering had been inflicted on the enslaved, if white people demanded they be cheerful or funny or entertaining, then this is what they had to do. The result was an intensification of already unbearable mental pain. 
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One of the women is Alice Caulley. Half of her family has moved to Kentucky, taking Pete’s sister with them. Alice drunkenly slaps an enslaved man, demanding that he sing for them. Hiram thinks that it never takes too long for white people to get bored of pretending to be civilized and to slip back into this kind of behavior. Howell turns to Hiram, telling Alice that they “have something better than any Negro song.” Hiram spots a deck of cards that Maynard uses in his lessons on a table. Each of the cards has a rhyme on it, which Hiram has memorized. Picking them up, he asks Alice to shuffle them. 
This passage explores how enslaved people’s talents, skills, and intelligence are stolen from them by white people who treat them as pets or accessories to be shown off to others. The fact that Howell does this to his own son is especially disturbing.
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After glancing at the card, Hiram gives them to Alice to place face down in a mixed-up order. Each time she picks up a card to look at, he correctly recites the rhyme on the back. Alice, who was at first skeptical, laughs in delight. Once this game is done, Hiram makes all the guests line up and asks them questions about their lives. He then recites all the answers, adding “drama and embellishment.” Everyone is smiling in astonishment, even the enslaved servers—all except Mr. Fields.
The way Hiram interacts with the guests is at times almost as if he is a guest himself—yet in reality, he is doing everything in service of them and is not even perceived as fully human by them. Despite his close proximity to these men and women of Quality (the word Coates uses for upper-class and/or slaveholding white people), he will never be seen as their equal.
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Hiram and the other enslaved people in the house only get a few hours’ sleep, having to rise again to prepare breakfast for the guests. In the morning, Hiram runs into Howell, who smiles at him. Behind him, Maynard sits at a writing desk, accompanied by Mr. Fields. Howell asks that Hiram spend some time with Mr. Fields, and Hiram politely agrees. Howell leaves, taking Maynard with him. Once they are alone, Mr. Fields compliments Hiram on the “trick” he performed the previous evening. He makes Hiram do a series of similar memory challenges, which Hiram completes with perfect accuracy.
It is important to remember that during slavery, enslaved people were usually banned from learning to read and write. Indeed, in some circumstances, literacy was punishable by beatings, torture, or even death. The fact that Howell wants Hiram to spend time with Mr. Fields is thus a little suspicious. Whatever Hiram might learn from Mr. Fields could ultimately be used against him.
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Eventually, Mr. Fields shows Hiram a drawing of a bridge, then asks him to draw it from memory. Hiram does so, making a show of hesitancy and struggle even though the task is easy for him. As he completes the drawing, Mr. Fields is astonished, and walks out of the room. Howell comes in and asks if Hiram would like to work for Mr. Fields. After another pretend show of hesitancy, Hiram agrees.
Enslaved people were forced to master the art of putting white people at ease and never making them feel threatened. Here, Hiram does this by pretending to find these tasks more difficult than he actually does. If he treated them as easy, Mr. Fields might feel insulted and retaliate.
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Mr. Fields begins tutoring Hiram, teaching him literacy and math, along with rhetorical skills. Hiram is thrilled by the new worlds this opens to him. He can tell that Mr. Fields prefers to teach him than Maynard, who is unintelligent and rude, constantly embarrassing himself and Howell in front of company. He remembers Thena’s insistence that Howell is not his “family,” but also cannot help but fantasize that he truly belongs at Lockless, and that he will one day inherit the property. Yet Hiram is also haunted by stories of enslaved people sold south, and troubled by the ongoing reports he hears from the white people about falling tobacco prices.
Bear in mind that Hiram’s treatment here is very far from what enslaved people usually endured, although it was not completely unheard of for enslaved people to be taught certain skills (including literacy) if this could be of use to their enslavers. In general, literacy was seen as a highly dangerous skill for enslaved people to have, because it encouraged communication, knowledge of the outside world, and therefore rebellion.
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Pete comments that white people used to be embarrassed when they sold enslaved people, and Ella responds that this was only because business was good back then. A week later, Ella herself is sold. Hiram continues to feel both “horrified” and envious of the white people at Lockless. From working there, Hiram has come to learn just how dependent the functioning of the house is on enslaved labor which is, wherever possible, carefully kept hidden from view. On the rare occasions when the enslaved people are visible, they are dressed in such a way as to hide the reality of their condition, making them seem like “mystical ornaments.” 
This passage explores the complicated, hypocritical, and disingenuous psychology of white enslavers. Pete seems to believe that enslavers’ morals have degraded, as there was previously a time when they would have been embarrassed to sell people off. However, Ella’s disagreement suggests that any semblance of morality enslavers claim to have is always an illusion. The truth is that they act in the interests of themselves and their profits.
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Meanwhile, although Hiram’s intelligence is treated as exceptional, he can see signs of “genius” among all the enslaved people living at Lockless. A year after he first starts studying with Mr. Fields, Hiram goes to his lesson to find Howell there, saying, “It’s time.” He explains that he’s long recognized that Hiram had a “particular talent,” and that he is appointing Hiram to be Maynard’s personal manservant. Howell notes that most enslavers would sell Hiram for a huge sum of money, commenting, “Nothing more valuable than a colored with some brains in him.” However, Howell is loyal to Virginia, and thinks it will be an “honor” for Hiram to serve his brother.
Once again, Hiram’s hopes are raised only to be cruelly dashed. Given the special recognition and education he has received, one might expect that he was being prepared for an important role. However, it turns out this role was actually the degrading position of being the personal manservant of his foolish brother. The fact that Howell frames this as an “honor” is extra insulting.
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Hiram spends the next seven years working as Maynard’s manservant. Strangely, it takes time for him to see this setup as the “insult” it is. The narrative jumps forward to when Hiram is 19, the day before the “fateful race-day.” He is standing in Howell’s study, reading a journal. He thinks about Maynard, who drinks too much, gambles, gets into fights, and spends exorbitant amounts on sex workers. Hiram has heard Maynard’s relatives lament his existence behind his back, predicting that he will cause the downfall of Lockless.  
The fact that Maynard will one be entrusted with the running of Lockless despite the fact that everyone believes he will destroy it highlights the irrationality of white supremacy. Hiram would clearly be a better candidate for running the plantation than his brother—yet enslavers would rather see their own property destroyed than placed under the control of a black man.
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Howell, meanwhile, has managed to find hope in the form of Corrine Quinn, “perhaps the wealthiest woman in all of Elm County,” who he hopes will become Maynard’s wife. Although Corrine is “superior to Maynard in every way,” she still needs him; her parents are dead and social norms dictate that she must have a husband to help her manage her enormous inheritance. 
The phrase “superior to Maynard in every way” draws a parallel between Corrine and Hiram. Both of them are tied to a foolish, inferior white man because of structural oppression (in one case based on race, the other on gender).
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Hiram listens to Howell and Maynard discuss a local white man who recently went outside in a blizzard and froze to death. Howell mentions a family who recently took all the enslaved people on their estate to Baltimore and granted them their freedom. Ever since, the family have been struggling to cope. Howell calls Hiram inside, giving him the same forced half-smile he always does. Hiram is sure that Howell thinks of himself as a “reflective,” intellectual man, but really this is not the case. Now 70 years old, Howell looks like what he is: the last member of a dying class.
Howell’s words reveal something very telling about white people’s reasoning in a moment of shifting attitudes toward slavery. While some white people might be sympathetic to abolition (such as the family who freed the enslaved people on their estate), one of many reasons why they will not actually take steps toward it is because they have become too dependent on the enslaved to consider it.  
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Maynard discusses the races taking place the next day. He is determined to prove himself, even though Howell suggests that it might be best for him not to go at all. Maynard leaves, and Howell asks Hiram to sit with him by the fire for a while. This is a highly unusual request for a white man to ask of an enslaved person, but is somewhat typical of Howell and Hiram’s relationship. By this point Howell has sold off so many of the enslaved workers at Lockless that the house has a deserted feel. Now, Howell urges Hiram to take good care of Maynard, and expresses regret at how little he has been “permitted” to give Hiram, despite his affection for him. He acknowledges that the system is unjust.
This passage explores how slavery led white people to perform acts of self-sabotage in the name of upholding a racist, unjust, and nonsensical system. Howell blames this system for forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, including selling off enslaved people and not giving Hiram the inheritance he is owed. Yet the reality is that of anyone introduced in the novel up to this point, Howell has the most power by far. He cannot blame the system for dictating his decisions.
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Howell also tells Hiram how terrible it has been to watch “[his] people” be taken off South. Again, he insists that Hiram take good care of Maynard, and Hiram promises that he will. After Howell leaves, Hiram reflects that although any enslaved person would gladly be in his position, there is something particularly difficult about being in such close proximity to the Quality and seeing the injustice so clearly as a result. That night, Hiram dreams that all the enslaved people at Lockless are extremely old and standing in the tobacco field. They are chained to Maynard, who is only a baby and doesn’t notice the presence of the Tasked. Everyone disappears but Hiram and Maynard, then Maynard and the field dissolve too, and the only thing left is the night sky and the North Star.
Hiram’s dream is a fairly obvious representation of the anxiety, resentment, and anger caused by the injustice of life as an enslaved person at Lockless. Yet the surprise appearance of the North Star at the end of the dream indicates that all hope may not be lost. The North Star was an important way in which people who escaped slavery helped navigate themselves. It therefore became a symbol of rebellion, freedom, and hope.
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