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 one block in Hiram’s memory—he has forgotten almost everything about his mother, Rose—prevents him from accessing his other powers, including Conduction (the ability to move through space in seconds). The struggle that Hiram and other characters in the novel experience in accessing repressed memories is a metaphor for the way in which slavery is so often erased and forgotten within the American public imagination. Coates argues that just as Hiram is empowered by his eventual ability to remember his mother, so is the true transition from slavery to freedom only possible by fully reckoning with the past.
The novel shows that memory is so important for enslaved people because slavery involved deliberately corrupting the ability of the enslaved to access the past. It did so by separating enslaved family members from each other and by separating the enslaved from their homelands in Africa. Rose and Hiram’s aunt Emma were both sold when he was only a little boy, which is part of why he struggles to remember them. Without these two family members, Hiram loses his connection to his own ancestors. This personal loss mirrors the larger break in memory caused by the transatlantic slave trade. This traumatic journey, alongside prohibitions against enslaved people practicing their own African religions, speaking their own languages, or engaging in their own customs, meant that enslaved people lost most of their access to their own ancestral histories. The connection between Hiram’s personal forgetting of Rose and the broader erasure of enslaved people’s connection to Africa is made extra clear when Hiram finally remembers Rose at the end of the novel and remembers that she used to tell him stories about Africa at night.
The separation of enslaved people from Africa and each other is not the only way in which slavery caused blocks in memory. The novel shows how slavery is so traumatizing that it leads people to deliberately forget the past because remembering would be too painful. This idea emerges both through Hiram’s own story of forgetting Rose and in the story of another enslaved woman, Thena, who becomes a surrogate mother to Hiram after all but one of her children are taken and sold. After Hiram escapes from slavery and starts working for the Underground Railroad, he meets Thena’s eldest child, Kessiah, and plans a reunion between them. However, when Hiram tells Thena this, she does not react in the joyful way he expects. She is horrified by the idea of seeing Kessiah, because the pain of losing her children is so unbearable that she has forced herself to repress her memory of them. She asks Hiram, “What will I do when I look at her and all I can see are my lost ones?”
Thena’s heartbreaking reaction shows that choosing to forget is not really a choice at all, but rather something enslaved people are forced into out of horrific necessity. The experience of having almost all of her children taken from her was so traumatizing for Thena that the only way she can continue living is by blocking the experience from her life. The novel is sympathetic to this coping mechanism, and does not suggest that Thena should have done something differently. She was put in an impossible position, faced with circumstances that no parent should have to endure.
On the other hand, the novel also shows that repressing traumatic experiences by forgetting them is never totally possible. Reflecting on Thena’s breakdown after he mentions a reunion with Kessiah, Hiram realizes, “[…] worst of all I knew how the memory of such things altered us, how we could never escape it, how it became an awful part of us.” Trying to forget about her lost children may have helped Thena keep living after they’re gone, but it does not mean that she will ever be free of the wound their absence creates. Again, Hiram’s realization can be applied both to Thena’s individual situation and to the dilemma created by slavery more broadly. Many would like to forget slavery in order to escape it, but in reality, this is impossible. It must be properly remembered and commemorated.
Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear to Hiram that memories—even when they are painful—can also be empowering, an essential part of the journey to freedom. One way in which this emerges is through the fact that he is only able to gain control over his power of Conduction once he remembers Rose (and, in particular, remembers that she tried to escape Lockless, the plantation where Hiram was born, before she and Hiram were recaptured and she was sold). Remembering Rose allows Hiram to properly exercise Conduction, which in turn becomes the key tool he uses to convey himself and others to freedom.
By literalizing the connection between memory and freedom, the novel illustrates the point made during a conversation between Hiram and Harriet, a leader of the Underground Railroad (based on the historical figure Harriet Tubman). During their conversation, Harriet underlines the idea that slavery blocks people’s access to the past, which manifests in the form of forgetting: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die.” Soon after, Harriet adds, “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” These words demonstrate that memory is important because without reckoning with the horrors of slavery (as well as remembering the freedom that preceded slavery), there can be no future in which enslaved people and their descendants are truly free.
Memory vs. Forgetting ThemeTracker
Memory vs. Forgetting 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.
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.
And in all of these words, and each of these stories, I saw as much magic as anything I’d seen in the Goose, souls conducted as surely as I was out from its depths.
“We forgot nothing, you and I,” Harriet said. “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die.” […] “To remember, friend,” she said. “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
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?”