The Water Dancer


Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Water Dancer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Memory vs. Forgetting

The Water Dancer makes the case that memory is vitally important, even when the horrors of slavery make it tempting to repress one’s memories. Ta-Nehisi Coates conveys this point through the main character, an enslaved man named Hiram Walker, who has a supernaturally powerful memory. By making Hiram’s ability to remember an actual superpower, Coates suggests that memory is not just personally important for individuals—it has the capacity to change the world. Indeed, the…

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Broken Families

The Water Dancer depicts the ways in which slavery corrupted and destroyed the families of enslaved people. It mainly does so by exploring one of the most harrowing aspects of slavery: family separation. All of the enslaved characters in the novel have family members who have been sold (while some have been sold themselves), creating permanent separations. The novel also shows how families are broken by slavery through the prevalence of rape of black women…

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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge

The Water Dancer draws on the common understanding that slavery is a system of stolen labor, and emphasizes that enslaved people were also robbed of their knowledge, skills, and power. It explores this point through showing all the ways in which enslaved people were more competent, talented, and knowledgeable than their enslavers, and by even depicting some of the characters born into slavery as having superpowers. Indeed, through this magical realist element of the novel…

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Water, Movement, and Freedom

As the title of the novel shows, water and movement are central elements of The Water Dancer; together, they represent the freedom that the enslaved characters in the novel are constantly seeking. Water and movement are tied together in several ways, the first of which is water dancing, something Hiram’s mother Rose and aunt Emma used to do when he was a child. During a water dance, dancers must move while trying…

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Humanity vs. Inhumanity

The Water Dancer depicts the brutally dehumanizing system of slavery, yet it also shows the ways in which enslaved people experienced their own humanity under this system. It largely does so by showing the emotional lives of the characters, most significantly the protagonist, Hiram. Rather than focusing on the violence and degradation that constitute life under slavery, the novel foregrounds Hiram’s thoughts, feelings, and (extraordinary) abilities. Alongside this, it also suggests that white people…

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