The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hiram realizes that if the coin is there, then he really must have been in the field. Feeling faint, he closes his eyes and opens them to see Thena there. She ushers him back to the house, telling him he needs to get rest. The next day, Roscoe urges Hiram to rest while he can, as soon he will be put back to hard work again. However, Hiram is tormented by his thoughts, and feels that working will be “the only escape.” He sees Corrine Quinn’s carriage coming up the road. Ever since Maynard’s death, Corrine has been regularly visiting Howell to lead him in prayer.
It is important not to interpret this passage as implying that enslaved people enjoyed the labor they were forced to do, or that they would have chosen to do it voluntarily. Rather, Hiram’s decision to work even when he is being told to rest conveys the profound psychic disturbances he is experiencing. His life has been thrown upside down, leaving him desperately clinging to anything familiar.
Themes
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Hiram goes to the shed where Howell keeps furniture in need of restoration and gets to work on a mahogany highboy. Thena sees him and tries to order him back to bed, but Hiram ignores her. Working on the highboy brings him a profound feeling of peace. The next morning, he is returning to continue his work when he runs into Hawkins, who tells him that Corrine would like to speak with him. Hiram finds Corrine speaking with Howell, fondly sharing memories of Maynard, their hands clasped together. When Hiram enters, Howell exists, leaving him with Corrine and her two servants, Hawkins and Amy.
It is also significant to note that Hiram isn’t doing the kind of work enslaved people are usually assigned. Rather, in devoting himself to antiques restoration, he is able to use his skills, intelligence, and creativity. Furthermore, the fact that no one has asked him to do this means that he can almost pretend that he is not doing it for someone else’s benefit, but for himself (even though this is not actually true).
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Hiram thanks Hawkins for saving his life, and Hawkins replies that it was Hiram who got himself out of the river—Hawkins found him lying on the grass. Corrine notes that they were all supposed to be “family,” and that she doesn’t see why that should not still happen despite Maynard’s death. She says she’s heard that Hiram is a “genius,” but understands that his “genius must be kept hidden.” This surprises Hiram, who is not used to the Quality speaking like this. When Hiram attempts to make a polite comment about Maynard, Corrine interrupts him, saying that she knows he was a “buffoon” but that she loved him anyway.   
In one sense, Corrine is surprisingly honest—the most honest a person of Quality has been thus far in the novel. At the same time, she still employs euphemisms, including one of the most common euphemism that existed under slavery: the idea that the enslaved and their enslavers were “family.” This sinister metaphor aimed to hide the reality of bondage, exploitation, and ownership under a loving, consensual façade.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Corrine observes that Hiram had been Maynard’s “right arm,” and that following Maynard’s death he probably doesn’t know what to do with himself. She asks about Maynard’s death, and Hiram tells her that Maynard saved him, hoping that it will provide her some relief. Corrine thanks him for telling her this. She then asks what Hiram is going to do now that he will no longer be working personally for Maynard, and Hiram replies, “I go where I am called.” Corrine indicates that she might like him to work for her. He is forced to confront his own status as property and worries that this means he will have to leave Lockless, the only home he’s ever had. 
Hiram’s fears about leaving Lockless reveal the peculiar position that enslaved people are put in. The plantation has hardly been a pleasant place to grow up and is a site of many major traumas for Hiram. Yet, because it is the only home he’s even known, he still retains an attachment to it. Indeed, part of the horror of slavery was knowing that as bad as things were in a certain place, there was always a risk of being sold and moved somewhere even worse.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
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Related Quotes
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Maynard’s body is never found. The enslaved people at Lockless work hard restoring the house in preparation for Christmas and the arrival of the extended Walker family. Hiram greets the guests, pleased to see black people who remember him from childhood and who knew Rose. On Christmas Day, the Tasked divide themselves so that half work on preparing a feast for the white people, and the other half on making the feast that will take place on the Street. Sitting around a bonfire, Hiram’s childhood friend Conway observes how in death, Maynard is being portrayed as a saint—a total contrast to how he was perceived when he was alive.
As this passage shows, holidays like Christmas were important to enslaved people just as they were to enslavers. Yet for the enslaved, preparations and the celebration itself had to be squeezed into pockets of time stolen away from the labor done to benefit enslavers. Enslaved people almost never had the luxury of getting to do things or themselves.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Thena observes that Howell’s family members are “flattering” him regarding Maynard because they want to inherit his land when he dies. She then walks off, and Hiram follows her. However, sensing that she wants to be alone, he leaves her again. Back at the bonfire, Conway’s sister Kat is sharing a story about how Hiram’s grandmother, Santi Bess, walked into the Goose, taking 48 enslaved people with her. Georgie dismisses the story as nonsense, protesting that it is told and re-told every year. According to the myth, Santi Bess transported herself and the 48 others back to Africa through the water. Hiram reflects that the idea is “preposterous.”
The story of Santi Bess is an important turning point in the novel. Up until now, a few seemingly supernatural events have occurred, but these could easily be dismissed as hallucinations or other misinterpretations of reality. Although Hiram is dismissive of the idea that Santi Bess could pull of such an extraordinary feat, the fact that the story is told suggests that in the world of the novel, the range of possibilities may be greater than it first appears.
Themes
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Though Hiram agrees with Georgie, others around them are annoyed with how sure of his own correctness Georgie seems to be. The conversation moves on; before long people start playing music, and Sophia gets up to water dance. Many others dance as well, but Hiram keeps his eyes on Sophia. Seeing him, she walks over and gives him the jar to drink. He is shocked to find it is ale—he assumed it was water—but after she gently teases him, he drinks the whole thing. Sophia suggests they go on a walk together. They go to a gazebo near the ice-house and sit, drinking more ale until they both feel drunk.
Sophia’s behavior here indicates that Hiram is wrong to assume she has no feelings about him whatsoever. The fact that she water dances connects her to Rose and Emma, suggesting that Sophia’s arrival in Hiram’s life may fill a void that has been there since Hiram’s mother and aunt were sold. Indeed, simply by watching Sophia water dance, Hiram is connected to the past in a vitally important way.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram and Sophia discuss Thena, and Sophia observes that she’s been “soft” with Hiram, which is surprising. Hiram feels full of desire for Sophia. He worries that Corrine may soon take him away from Lockless. He and Sophia link arms, and they gaze up at the starry sky together.
This moment of tenderness is a heartbreaking reminder that any intimacy formed between enslaved people was at constant risk of being destroyed by forced separation.
Themes
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