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 to keep a vessel of water perched on their heads from spilling. Water and movement are also connected by the fact that throughout the novel, enslaved people move from place to place via water. This happens both involuntarily (i.e., when enslaved people are “sold down the [Mississippi] river” into the deep South, or when they were brought over from Africa via the Atlantic) and voluntarily (as when Hiram uses the River Goose to Conduct himself to faraway places). The novel shows that while part of the legacy of slavery is traumatic movement as captives across water, moving through water is also the path back into freedom.
The novel explicitly frames water dancing as a reclamation of water from the trauma of the Middle Passage, the journey enslaved people were forced to make across the Atlantic while confined in slave ships. The Middle Passage signifies the end of freedom, yet the water itself symbolized freedom. This is made particularly clear by the story Sophia tells about the African chief who led a rebellion aboard a slave ship, only to be surrounded by military ships. As Sophia explains, “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.” The captives may have been forced to move across water by enslavers, but choosing to dance and sing as they jumped from the ship was a way of reclaiming their own movement as they chose the freedom offered by death rather than a life of captivity. Indeed, the association between water, death, and freedom is made even more clear when Hiram mentions stories Rose would tell him about their ancestors who live “in that paradise under the sea,” presumably after jumping from slave ships.
Sophia explains that water dancing is a way to honor the African chief who led the rebellion and all other captive Africans who jumped into the water during the Middle Passage. As such, it is a radical assertion of freedom in the midst of bondage. Sophia says, “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?” The fact that this ritual involves honoring the rebels through dance is also significant. Throughout the novel, dance is depicted as an expression of agency, of the freedom of one’s own body even as slavery attempted to assert total control over the body. Observing Sophia dance, Hiram sees “a flurry of limbs, but all under control.” The phrase “under control” illustrates that for Sophia, dancing is a reminder (to herself and others) of her ownership of her own body. Indeed, when Hiram witnesses a group of enslaved people about to be sold, he thinks about the contrast between this sight and the image of people dancing: “where their arms and their legs had once been dancing, I saw now that from ankle to wrist they were chained.” Dancing and captivity are depicted as opposites.
Water and movement are also linked to freedom through the Goose, the river near Lockless, which carries enslaved people into the “hell” of the Deep South yet ultimately becomes the route via which Hiram accesses freedom. The novel opens with both Hiram and his half-brother Maynard in the Goose. Convinced that he is about to die, Hiram has a vision of Rose, and is miraculously saved via Conduction. Maynard, meanwhile, drowns. Because Maynard is Hiram’s captor—the man he is assigned to serve—Maynard’s death becomes the beginning of Hiram’s liberation (even though it doesn’t immediately free Hiram when it happens). Whereas Maynard is overpowered and killed by the water, Hiram’s ancestral connection to the water as a site of freedom (shown through Rose’s appearance) means that he is able to survive. It also teaches him that Conduction is linked both to his memoires of his mother and to water, and it is this realization that eventually allows him to gain control over this superpower, which will eventually be key to securing his freedom.
While water is a means of movement and thus a route to freedom, Hiram must learn to trust the water in order to take advantage of the powers it offers. This is difficult; as Hiram’s near-death experience shows, the danger of drowning—and particularly the ancestral memory of those who drowned after jumping or being thrown overboard during the Middle Passage—means that water is frightening. It is Harriet, who also has the power of Conduction, who teaches Hiram to trust the water, thereby allowing it to carry him to freedom. Importantly, she does so by comparing Conduction to dancing: “It’s just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine.” Given that dancing is an expression of freedom, Harriet is imploring Hiram to trust the freedom that remains inside him. Hiram is eventually able to escape slavery and help others to freedom because he remembers that freedom is inside him, a truth that he expresses by again connecting freedom to water: “I was freedom-bound, and freedom was as much in my heart as it was in the swamps.” Both freedom and water are external to Hiram, but also within him; this helps to show how freedom is a state he must move toward, yet also something that stays alive inside him all along.
Water, Movement, and Freedom ThemeTracker
Water, Movement, and Freedom 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.
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?”