The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hiram wakes from his dream shaking and cannot fall back asleep. He gets some water from the well and thinks about all the enslaved people chained to the clueless Maynard. At 19, he should be thinking about finding a wife, but has seen too much of the horrific trauma of separation in order for this to be appealing. He observes that “families formed in the shadow […] turned to dust with the white wave of a hand.” Walking from his room, he passes the room belonging to Sophia, who is sitting with her lantern on. 
Family separation doesn’t just destroy existing families. As Hiram shows here, it also puts enslaved people off of even forming loving and familial connections with others in the first place, because the risk of pain caused by separation is too much to bear.
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Sophia is a young woman who does not seem to task, though this is because she “belong[s]” to Nathaniel Walker, Howell’s brother. Every weekend Hiram drives Sophia to Nathaniel’s house, then picks her up to bring her back to Lockless. Although this is a very normal relationship under slavery, Nathaniel cannot make peace with it, which is why he insists that Sophia doesn’t live on his property. She dresses “like a lady of Quality” when she goes to see him, but still uses the back entrance. Nathaniel also keeps an eye on enslaved men who might be interested in her, but this hasn’t dissuaded Hiram. 
The systemic rape of black women by white men was a key part of slavery. It took many forms, including the one described here, wherein an enslaved woman was forced to act as the “concubine” or “mistress” of an enslaver. Calling women like Sophia a “slave mistress” or “concubine,” however, can risk obscuring the reality that this was a relation of institutionalized rape. 
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Seeming a little dazed, Sophia says that she had already imagined Hiram coming to say goodbye to her before race-day, and even heard the conversation in her head. Hiram is lost for words. When she asks him how she looks that day, he replies, “Not so bad, if I do say.” After bidding her goodbye and walking away, Hiram thinks about how slavery not only robs him of his inheritance and the products of his labor, but even of his own desires.
The contradiction between the resistance Hiram expressed at the beginning of the chapter to finding a wife and his obvious feelings for Sophia prove his point: slavery alienates the enslaved from their own desires.
Themes
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As Hiram drives Maynard to the races, Maynard talks the whole way. All the men and women of Quality are there, the men looking smart and the women glamorous. Hiram sees a few people he recognizes, including Mr. Fields, who tips his hat at him. Hiram feels bad for Maynard, who so obviously does not fit into this elegant world. Maynard spots Adelaide Jones, a woman he once unsuccessfully pursued and greets her. Hiram watches as Maynard drones on while Adelaide smiles politely in response. Both Hiram and Maynard then see Corrine Quinn, standing in the ladies’ section. 
It is remarkable that, despite the system of brutal degradation to which Maynard subjects him, Hiram still has a capacity for empathy with his brother. Indeed, despite Hiram’s own degraded social status, he manages to pity Maynard for all the ways in which he fails to live up to society’s image of a respectable gentleman.
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Maynard gazes at Corrine, but then goes to stand among the low whites. Hiram is always astonished by the position of the low whites in society. They accept horrific degradation at the hands of the Quality just so they can in turn oppress and degrade the Tasked. Hiram, meanwhile, goes to join the black people, some of whom are enslaved and some free. He nods to Corrine’s servant Hawkins, who has a “cold” and intimidating manner. Once the races begin and Maynard’s horse, Diamond, wins, he screams in delight, embracing everyone around him. By the end of the day, Maynard remains ecstatic, shouting, “I told them all!”
The brief discussion of low whites in this passage is key. In North America, whiteness was a social category invented during slavery in order to prevent solidarity forming between black people and what Coates calls “low whites.” Low whites were often desperately poor and were forced to engage in brutal, dehumanizing labor. Yet by offering them the (often largely symbolic power) of whiteness, the overall hierarchy was preserved.
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Thinking of Howell’s insistence that Hiram take care of Maynard, Hiram tries to lead them home, but Maynard insists on staying. Quickly dissatisfied with his gloating, Maynard makes Hiram take him to a brothel and collect him in an hour. While he is waiting, Hiram thinks about Sophia. He is infatuated with her, and thinks that although she doesn’t love him now, she might “in a world beyond the Task.” Given the state of Virginia, it would no longer be possible for Hiram to buy his freedom. Meanwhile, the possibility of running away is “unthinkable.” He has never known anyone who has successfully escaped.
Compared to Maynard’s rather vulgar attitude toward women, Hiram’s love for Sophia is pure. However, at the same time, slavery inherently corrupts what should be the straightforwardly positive, respectful feelings he has for her. Even the question of whether she loves him in return cannot be properly answered while they are both enslaved.
Themes
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Georgie Parks is a highly respected free black man who, like Big John, had a natural understanding of agriculture. There is a rumor that he is connected to the Underground, “a secret society of colored men [who] had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.” Suddenly, a fight breaks out among a group of white people in the town square. Hiram knows that he could get into trouble just by being there, so walks over to the “free colored” part of town. This area begins at Ryland’s Jail, which is solely used to imprison enslaved people who have either tried to run away or are about to be sold.
Readers will likely recognize that “the Underground” refers to the Underground Railroad, the network of safehouses and “agents” that helped enslaved people escape to freedom in the North. It is clear from this passage that although Hiram has heard of the Underground Railroad, he doesn’t really know what it is, leading him to a mistaken belief that it is an actual world of rebels living in the swamps.
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At Georgie’s house, Hiram is greeted warmly by Georgie and his wife, Amber. Their newborn son is lying in a cot. Stepping out into Georgie’s garden, Hiram hands his friend a wooden horse he’s carved for the baby. Amber brings them plates of food before returning inside. Hiram asks how he felt when Georgie walked off of Lockless after buying his freedom, and Georgie replies, “Like a man,” adding, “Which is not to say I wasn’t one before, but I had never truly felt it.” Georgie then tells Hiram that all the men used to be in love with Rose. He reminisces about watching Emma and Rose water dance.
Hiram’s own family may have been destroyed by slavery, but he maintains touching connections to other families that remain intact, such as Georgie’s. Georgie’s life represents the simple dream of freedom: the ability to live with dignity, on one’s own terms, with the people one loves. The grim reality is that even this basic dream is withheld from enslaved people.
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When Hiram comments that Georgie is now “out” of slavery, Georgie replies that no one really gets out, although he is glad that he is not captive at Lockless anymore. As Hiram gets ready to go, he tells Georgie that he has begun to feel that he has to get out himself. Too many people are being sold down to Natchez, the soil in Virginia is dead, and the white people who remain behave with erratic carelessness. He then says that he believes Georgie is connected with the Underground Railroad. Georgie tells Hiram to go home, insisting that he must choose to be satisfied with what he has.   
Georgie crushes Hiram’s optimism twice in this passage—first, when he says that no one ever truly escapes slavery, and second, when he tells Hiram to forget about his dream of getting out. Is Georgie trying to protect Hiram from the risk of trying to leave—or is his behavior grounded in more selfish motives?
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Hiram leaves, but remains convinced that Georgie is testing him. As he walks through town, he sees items of clothing strewn about, and a man of Quality lying face down in a pile of manure. He sees Maynard, very drunk and standing outside the brothel with a fancy girl. Next to him is Hawkins. Maynard warns him not to tell Corrine about the fancy, and Hawkins assures him he won’t. As Hiram drives them home, he becomes convinced that as soon as Howell dies, Maynard will sell him, and he will end up in Natchez. At this point they reach the bridge, and Hiram has the vision of Rose. He is not sure how exactly, but it was this memory that facilitated his Conduction.
The chaotic, unpredictable, and terrifying nature of life under slavery emerges with stark clarity in this passage. Despite being an intelligent and level-headed person, Hiram’s fate is not in his own control but rather subject to the whims of men who are not only more foolish than him, but only care about their self-interest.
Themes
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Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
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