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, Coates emphasizes that it will always be impossible to know just how much was stolen from black people during slavery. This is because enslavers denied the existence of the forms of wisdom, talent, and power that enslaved people possessed, while at the same time robbing them for themselves. By exaggerating the skills that Hiram and other enslaved characters possess into actual superpowers, the novel reminds the reader that enslaved people had powers and talents that have been lost to history forever.
The novel illustrates the extent of the skills, power, and knowledge stolen from enslaved people by endowing the main character, Hiram, with superpowers. These extraordinary abilities take two main forms: Hiram’s superhuman memory, and his ability to travel through space in seconds, which in the novel is called Conduction. The fact that Hiram possesses these two skills in particular is significant, because they both represent things that enslavers disproportionately robbed from the enslaved. Slavery systematically denied enslaved people access to their own past—their memories—by transporting captives from their homelands in Africa, prohibiting African cultural and religious practices, separating families, and banning enslaved people from becoming literate. Meanwhile, slavery also confined the movement of enslaved people, keeping them captive on the plantations where they were enslaved and installing systems of surveillance in order to prevent people from fleeing. The fact that Hiram is capable of both extraordinary memory and extraordinary movement highlights the massive amount of skill stolen from enslaved people, and why it took such a particularly expansive and brutal institution to facilitate the theft of these skills.
The novel also reverses the racist idea that black people had inferior abilities—an idea that was often used as a justification for slavery—by instead showing the opposite to be true. As Hiram explains, “The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.” Hiram’s words show that logically, enslaved people were of course more capable than enslavers—slavery required them to be. While white enslavers made themselves more and more incompetent by depending so completely on the labor of enslaved people, enslaved people themselves gained more knowledge and skills, only to have them stolen through the system of slavery.
The contrast between the enslaved people’s skills and the enslavers’ incompetence emerges most prominently in the depiction of Hiram and his half-brother, Maynard. While Hiram is highly intelligent and even possesses superpowers, Maynard is unintelligent, lazy, incapable of taking care of himself, and prone to nefarious behaviors such as gambling and drinking to excess. Indeed, the fact that Maynard has such a skilled manservant in the form of Hiram makes him even more lazy and inept. By stealing the skills, power, and knowledge of the enslaved, white people like Maynard maintained a position of superiority yet further weakened themselves when it came to their own abilities.
The novel also shows that because slavery was a system of exploitation and theft, possessing extraordinary abilities did not necessarily confer advantages for enslaved people (as would be the case in a more just social system). As a young boy, Hiram dreams that his intelligence and talent mean that he will eventually be installed as the rightful “heir” of Lockless, rather than his inept half-brother. Of course, the system of slavery means that this is an impossibility. Moreover, Hiram’s talent and intelligence cannot advantage him personally because under slavery, they are little more than ways to make more money for his enslavers. As Hiram reflects, “My genius would not save me, indeed my genius would only make me a more valuable commodity.” He may possess extraordinary skills, but he does not have ownership or control over these skills. As an enslaved person, exercising his own intelligence and skills can only work to benefit his captors.
The fact that Hiram is ultimately able to gain control over his skills through rebellion shows why slavery was a system doomed to fail. One group of people can only steal the intelligence, talents, and labor of another group for so long before such an exploitative and unsustainable system is overturned. At the same time, Hiram’s victory—using his abilities to liberate himself and others, and despite all odds becoming the “master” of Lockless when it becomes a station of the Underground Railroad—only further highlights the extent of what was stolen from black people under slavery. Even after his triumph, Hiram must keep his work secret so that he can continue the project of liberating enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. (This is of course also true of Harriet, who, like Hiram, is capable of Conduction, a skill she explicitly links to the time before slavery: “It is the old ways, which shall and do remain.”) The secrecy under which Hiram’s talents must be placed means that evidence of these talents never makes it into the historical record. Herein lies a particularly tragic element of the theft that occurred through slavery. Not only were wisdom, talent, and power stolen, but evidence of these abilities was erased.
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge ThemeTracker
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge 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.
The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.
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.
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.”