MihirChronicles

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The Water Dancer | A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates

15 June, 2021 - 9 min read


I. Brief Summary

Hiram was born into bondage. When his mother was sold, Hiram didn't have any memory of her, but was gifted was a mysterious power called “Conduction.” This super power would enable him to spirit people away from their bondage. He grew up in plantation and found himself in the underground war between slavers and and the enslaved. Hiram ultimately was able to rescue the family he left behind. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a great non-fiction writer, but I struggled to stay engaged. I skipped many chapters or skimmed through it fast. I did however enjoyed his prose.

II. Big Ideas

  • none

III. Quotes

  • “The way you hollering liable to wake the dead.”
  • The light of freedom had been reduced to embers, but it was still shining in me, and borne up by the winds of fear, I kept running, bent, loping, locked, but running all the same, with my whole chest aflame.
  • Hunger stole my will.
  • A buyer appeared. Ryland brought me out in chains. I was blindfolded and gagged.
  • And it occurred to me how absurd it was to cling to morality when surrounded by people who had none.
  • My whole life was purchased on time.
  • I would fall into myself during these “examinations,” because I quickly learned that the only way to survive such invasion was to dream, to let my soul fly from my body...
  • But when I spoke, I had nothing but the most impoverished of words.
  • All my life I had been a captive.
  • They just led us out of the woods, into Starfall, until we were at the jail, and there they replaced rope with chains, and left us in the yard, like the animals they took us to be, dressed in cold irons, for what must be our last moments together, our last moments upon this earth as we knew it.
  • ...old enough to understand how a tangle of events can be unraveled to reveal a singular thread.
  • For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.
  • We really ain’t nothing but jewelry to them.
  • They grow together, and as the play hours decline, the ritual changes.
  • I felt jealous of the heavens.
  • The fire roared high, beating back the December chill.
  • ...by the time I caught wind it was all already in motion.
  • And this faulty narration was fractured even more by the fact that so many of her generation...
  • Santi’s story came to me in a mix of rumor and whisper.
  • It was preposterous.
  • I was known for my industry, for my steady disposition, for my rectitude.
  • “Woman is made for the completion of man...”
  • I slept long and deep that night, dreamless, and awoke filled with the anticipation of renewing yesterday’s labor and achieving again that mindless focus.
  • Fallen leaves clung to the bottom of my brogans.
  • My father was Virginian, and like the relics of his Revolutionary fathers, a certain godlessness testified to the old days when everything seemed in question.
  • Work was the only escape.
  • But lying there, all I found were questions and paranoias that rattled around in my head—the deceptions of Hawkins, my dancing mother on the bridge.
  • “Ain’t about ‘favor,’ Hi, it’s about doing. Best thing about the dance is it really didn’t matter who had it and who did not. Only crime you could commit was to spend that whole night all lonesome against that old smokehouse wall.”
  • After Sophia left, I sat on the edge of my bed contemplating the shape of events.
  • I generally returned this good feeling with my own muted affection.
  • “And now he is gone, and I am twice departed.”
  • ...we were, in that moment, in a kind of secret communication that can only exist between a parent and child, no matter how monstrous the relation.
  • This was their civilization...
  • “It is said that you are a man of knowledge, that you know more than this little free quarter, that you are connected with people who operate in such things.
  • “You ever water dance, Hi?”
  • Its meaning is in the doing.
  • ...if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake.
  • ...these coloreds of Starfall existed in the shadow of an awesome power, which, at a whim, could clap them back into chains.
  • Clouds now crowded the sky.
  • ...though the dream took its meaning from whatever vantage it was glimpsed from.
  • I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown.
  • I was now alone, and grateful for the privacy of my thoughts.
  • I had never seen Maynard more happy in all of his brief life.
  • Maynard grew more excited in conversation and Adeline’s tolerations were taxed.
  • ...the ladies in powdered faces.
  • ...bits of orange and yellow exploding off the mountains.
  • I retreated into my private thoughts.
  • It was also that my own natural wants must forever be bottled up...
  • And it was more than knowing I would never be a subscriber to the fruit of my own labor.
  • I felt myself barely able to muster words. I feared what I might say.
  • She belonged to my uncle, my father’s brother, Nathaniel Walker. None needed to guess at the nature of this arrangement. But if I had had any doubts, they were quickly extinguished when I was given the task of driving her to and then retrieving her from Nathaniel’s property each weekend.
  • And looking at the tail of the bear, I saw something else: the mark of my future days, wreathed in brilliant but ghostly blue, and the mark was the North Star.
  • I could distinguish Ursa Minor, the mystical bear who secreted away the old gods.
  • ...the crushing weight of seeing how the Quality truly lived, in all their luxury, and how much they really took from us.
  • ...until my father announced his retirement for the evening.
  • I have made it known how high you sit in my esteem.
  • There is so much in the eyes—the flash of rage, the warmth of joy, the pooling of sadness—and
  • To him, books were fashion, signatures of pedigree and status...
  • ...he was between two notions and could not decide which to give voice to.
  • But she needed a husband because Virginia still operated on the code of gentlemen...
  • Virginia was where the earth was dying and the tobacco diminishing.
  • He lost fortunes in the arms of fancies, because the labor of the Tasked—and sometimes their sale—would cover all his losses.
  • He fought in the street, because no matter how throttled, he could never be throttled from his throne.
  • Social instinct and grace had not found him in manhood.
  • And in that way my lessons came to an end just as their purpose was revealed. I was tasked with Maynard, his personal servant for the next seven years of my life.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • As I learned the house, and began to read, and began to see more of the Quality, I saw that just as the fields and its workers were the engine of everything, the house itself would have been lost without those who tasked within it. My father, like all the masters, built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness, to hide how prostrate they truly were.
  • ...speaking whatever thought then possessed him.
  • I felt the tension in the room slack a bit.
  • New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board.
  • Bored whites were barbarian whites.
  • There was always work to be done, for while the needs of the house had not diminished...
  • She was trying to tell me, trying to warn me of what was coming. But my gift was memory, not wisdom.
  • the rages had diminished, as though maybe my presence had begun to heal an old wound.
  • I knew understood the suffering that was just then compounding in me.
  • She’d gone from that warm quilt of memory to the cold library of fact.
  • ...thought that this was it, the meaning of the dream: a secret path that would deliver me from Lockless to reunite me with my mother.
  • My whole world seemed to hinge upon it.
  • I heard again the seemingly aimless voices, now multiplying around me...
  • And it was my gift to, at a moment’s beckoning, retrieve the images and translate them back into the exact words with which they had been conjured.
  • And then he was gone. I would like to say that I mourned right then, or took some manner of note. But I did not. I was headed to my ending. He was headed to his.
  • and now wrestling with the demand that I, once again, save another, when I could not even conjure the energy to save myself.
  • I had, on many occasions, tried to teach Maynard to swim, and he took to this instruction as he took to all instruction, careless and remiss at the labor, then sore and bigoted when this negligence bore no fruit.
  • ...and what happened next shook forever my sense of a cosmic order.
  • My mother was the best dancer at Lockless, that is what they told me, and I remembered this because she’d gifted me with none of it...
  • ...that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.