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 are the ones truly dehumanized by slavery—not in the sense that they are oppressed, but rather because they erode their own humanity by degrading the humanity of others. Indeed, the novel suggests that this is not just true of enslavers, but also of white abolitionists (like the character Corinne Quinn). Ultimately, it is the black characters whose humanity survives the horrors of slavery, and the white characters who lose their understanding of how to be human.
While readers might presume to be familiar with the system of dehumanization on which slavery was built, the novel forces the reader to confront it anew by renaming the different categories of personhood slavery produced. In the novel, white property owners are called “the Quality,” whereas enslaved people are called “the Tasked,” and slavery itself is known as “the Task.” There is also a third category of “Low,” poor white people who often have to perform similar kinds of labor to the enslaved, yet who have chosen the symbolic power that comes with whiteness rather than solidarity with black people. By renaming these different levels of status, Coates defamiliarizes slavery and the dehumanization it involved, meaning he makes the reader view it as something foreign and unfamiliar. As a result, the novel manages to re-expose the way in which slavery is an assault on humanity, while also encouraging the reader to think about this issue from a new perspective.
Through focusing on the interior lives of the characters, the novel depicts how its enslaved characters feel about the relentless attempts to dehumanize them. The two main metaphors the enslaved characters use to encapsulate this experience are objecthood and death. The enslaved characters in The Water Dancer are very aware of their status as property. Hiram conveys this when he explains, “You have to remember what I was: not human but property, and a valuable property.” Here he explicitly shows that his status as property means that he is not considered human.
Slavery is also shown to be dehumanizing by being a form of living death. In the novel, slavery is often referred to as “the coffin,” a metaphor that conveys both the confinement of bondage and the idea that living as a slave is not really a life. The old man with whom Hiram is briefly imprisoned after being caught by slavecatchers further emphasizes the idea of living death when he says, “For a man that can’t honor his wife’s dying wish ain’t even a man, ain’t even a life.” Here the man explicitly links the dehumanizing impact of slavery (“ain’t even a man”) with the experience of slavery as a form of living death (“ain’t even a life”).
Yet even as the novel exposes all the dehumanizing brutalities enslaved people were forced to endure, it also underlines that the humanity of the enslaved remained despite all this. This point emerges in the rich interior lives of the enslaved characters, their knowledge and talents, their care for each other, and—perhaps more than anything—their ongoing yearning for freedom. The idea that slavery does not successfully dehumanize the enslaved becomes most obvious in the depiction of the Underground Railroad. Once Hiram, Harriet, and others have escaped from slavery, instead of focusing on sustaining their new lives in the North, they risk their lives in order to rescue others—family, friends, and strangers. Slavery has not robbed them of their humanity; they retain their moral drive and empathy for others.
The same is not true, however, for the white characters in the novel. This is exposed through Howell and Maynard Walker, who have both become so inhuman by their participation in slavery that they enslave their own blood relative, Hiram. Over the course of the narrative, Howell becomes a weak, despondent husk of his former self, and it is clear that life as an enslaver has drained him of his vitality and dignity.
Furthermore, the novel emphasizes that it is not just enslavers who are dehumanized by slavery, but all white people, even abolitionists. This idea is illustrated via Corrine Quinn, the wealthy white woman who works for the Underground Railroad. Describing her, another white Underground agent, Micajah Bland, notes, “When you are operating as Corrine Quinn does, on the other side of the line, the math is different. It has to be. You were part of that math.” Bland’s use of the term “math” is significant. Being reduced to a number is one of the many ways in which slavery dehumanized enslaved people, who were quantified alongside crops and livestock as if their only value was financial. However, Bland’s words reverse this idea, showing that it is actually white people like Corinne who are “part of that math” because they materially benefit from it.
The depiction of Corrine also shows that for white people who choose not to participate in slavery, it is hard to restore their own humanity. The novel indicates that white abolitionists tend to oppose slavery for self-centered reasons. Hiram observes that white abolitionists tend to be the most “fanatical” because they are aware of the way slavery degrades their own humanity. He notes, “Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess […] So their opposition was a kind of vanity.” Here Hiram reverses another common assumption: that white abolitionists are heroes because they acted against their own self-interest. Instead, he argues that (unlike the black people working for the Underground Railroad, who act out of true selflessness) white people engage in abolitionism for precisely selfish reasons, in order to restore their idea of their own humanity.
Humanity vs. Inhumanity ThemeTracker
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Quotes in The Water Dancer
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.
You have to remember what I was: not human but property, and a valuable property—one learned in all the functions of the manor, of crops, read, capable of entertaining with my tricks of memory.
The Task was a trap. Even Georgie was trapped. And so who was Corrine Quinn to judge such a man? Who was I, who’d run with no higher purpose save my own passions and my own skin? Now I understood the Underground war. It was not the ancient and honorable kind.
“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.”