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 by white men, creating “illegitimate” relations between enslavers and the enslaved, such as between Hiram and his white father Howell and half-brother Maynard. Yet even as the novel exposes the many ways in which slavery destroys families, it also highlights the ways in which enslaved and free black people form new relationships of love and care in the place of broken family ties. While this does not heal the trauma of family separation, it constitutes a moving and powerful way of life that enables black people to survive and fight for freedom.
The novel shows that part of what is so devastating about family separation is that love and family are some of the only ways in which enslaved people can experience dignity, care, and joy in the midst of the horrors of slavery. Many of the instances of joy in Hiram’s life occur within a family context, including Rose and aunt Emma water dancing together (a form of dance performed by enslaved people) and Rose telling him stories about Africa at night. When Rose and Emma are sold, two of the precious few sources of joy in Hiram’s life disappear.
At the same time, the novel also shows that joy can come from relations between people who aren’t biological family. For example, when Thena becomes a surrogate mother figure to Hiram, it soothes him. In part because of the way in which slavery destroys connections between biological family members, enslaved people form kinship networks with people outside their immediate families. Unfortunately, these relationships are just as often severed by the separations enacted by enslavers.
Separation, however, is not the only way in which families are broken by slavery; another significant way is through widespread rape and its impact on family networks. Hiram knows that he is the son of the master of Lockless, Howell Walker, and therefore knows that he was conceived when Howell raped Rose. As if this weren’t traumatic enough, Hiram must also deal with the fact that his father sold his mother and continues to enslave his own son, forcing him to work as a manservant for his half-brother, Maynard. Hiram illustrates the particular pain of being held enslaved by your own family members with the words, “all I wanted was to be home and free of Maynard’s voice, though I could never, in this life, be free of him. Maynard who held my chain. Maynard, my brother who was made my master.” This quotation highlights the perverse impact slavery has on families, corrupting what should be bonds of love and care into dynamics of abuse, servitude, and degradation.
Although the novel’s main focus is on how black people are harmed by slavery’s destruction of families, it does highlight that this phenomenon harms everyone, including the white enslavers who enact it. Howell claims to feel restricted by social norms, which prevent him from loving Rose and Hiram in the way he would like. He tells Hiram that he is not “permitted” to give him much, and later in the novel admits that he regrets selling Rose. Of course, while Howell may indeed feel pressured by the racist norms of his time, he is still responsible for complying with them. Yet his expressions of regret show that the damage that white people inflict on familial relations during slavery also becomes a form of self-harm. The racist ideology undergirding slavery is so powerful that it leads white people like Howell to destroy their own families.
There is no redemptive arc when it comes to the novel’s depiction of broken families; the impact of slavery on familial relations is shown to be a wound that will never heal. Yet the novel also strongly emphasizes that constant separation encourages enslaved people to form new ties of care and support with one another, and even to see all black people as part of the same family. Indeed, the idea that all black people are family emerges in contrast to the biological relations that exist between white people like Howell and black people like Hiram—relations that, far from encouraging love and care, are often conduits for cruelty. Thena emphasizes this idea when Hiram goes to work in Howell’s house as a young teenager. She tells him, “They ain’t your family, boy. I am more your mother standing right here now than that white man on that horse is your father.” Here, Thena shows that biological ties do not mean much given how white enslavers pervert and destroy them. What is more important is the sense of connectedness and care that emerges among all black people to counter this destruction of the family.
The book repeatedly emphasizes how the destruction of the family encourages the enslaved characters to remain open to loving other black people to whom they are not biologically related. While the formerly enslaved Otha is grieving his separation from his wife and children, he also mentions that new and improvised relationships beyond his biological family help sustain him: “I lived divided from my blood, and made brothers wherever I lived, and grieved every time we were divided—and we were always divided. But I have never, for an instant, shied away from connection, from love.” Otha’s final words show how important it is for him to remain open to love even after the endless repeating trauma of being separated. There is no cure for being torn away from loved ones, but the inevitability of separation makes it even more important that the enslaved characters in the novel are able to develop new relationships of love and care.
Broken Families ThemeTracker
Broken Families Quotes in The Water Dancer
I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.
I was pushing the horse as hard as I could, because all I wanted was to be home and free of Maynard’s voice, though I could never, in this life, be free of him. Maynard who held my chain. Maynard, my brother who was made my master.
It occurred to me then that even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius in its makers—genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost, genius in Big John. Genius in my mother.
I imagined that my own quality might someday be recognized and then, perhaps, I, one who understood the workings of the house, the workings of the field, and the span of the larger world, might be deemed the true heir, the rightful heir, of Lockless. With this broad knowledge I would make the fields bloom again, and in that way save us all from the auctions and separation, from a descent into the darkness of Natchez, which was the coffin, which was all that awaited, I knew, under the rule of Maynard.
At every gathering there was this dispute about my mother’s mother, Santi Bess, and her fate. The myth held that she had executed the largest escape of tasking folk—forty-eight souls—ever recorded in the annals of Elm County. And it was not simply that they had escaped but where they’d been said to escape to—Africa. It was said that Santi had simply led them down to the river Goose, walked in, and reemerged on the other side of the sea.
Maybe the power was in some way related to the block in my memory, and to unlock one was, perhaps, to unlock the other. And so in those dark and timeless hours in the pit, it became my ritual to reconstruct everything I had heard of her and all that I had seen of her in those moments down in the Goose. Rose of the kindest heart. Rose, sister of Emma. Rose the beautiful. Rose the silent. Rose the Water Dancer.
“Micajah Bland was not my blood, but he was so much my brother that he would die for me and mine. I am not young to any of this. I lived divided from my blood, and made brothers wherever I lived, and grieved every time we were divided—and we were always divided. But I have never, for an instant, shied away from connection, from love.”
“We can’t ever have nothing pure,” Robert said. “It’s always out of sorts. Them stories with their knights and maidens, none of that for us. We don’t get it pure. We don’t get nothing clean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But neither do they. It is quite a thing, a messy dirty thing, to put your own son, your own daughter, to the Task. Way I see it, ain’t no pure and it is we who are blessed, for we know this.”
Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.
“Was a big king who come over from Africa on the slave ship with his people. But when they got close to shore, him and his folk took over, killed all the white folks, threw ’em overboard, and tried to sail back home. But the ship run aground, and when the king look out, he see that the white folks’ army is coming for him with they guns and all. So the chief told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess brought ’em here, and the water-goddess would take ’em back home.
And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see?”