The Water Dancer, presents Hiram as a man who struggles to re-connect with his Black, African heritage after his mother is sent away. Both mother and son are enslaved by, and thus legally the property of, Howell Walker. Through Hiram’s dilemma, author Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals the complexities of slavery as an institution in which some white people sought ways to moderate the negative influences of the system. However, such efforts are revealed as fundamentally flawed because they did not challenge the underlying issue of denying personhood to human beings.
As Hiram’s father, Howell provides a good example of the moral ambiguity that afflicted some white owners. In selling Rose, Hiram’s mother, when the boy was only nine years old, Howell is responsible for destroying his son’s connection with half of his family’s heritage. One part of Howell believes that he cared for Rose and that he is supporting his Black, illegitimate son through allowing him to become educated—in an era when it was illegal. In his imagination, literacy and lessons are evidence of his generosity and broad-mindedness. However, because Maynard is white and his legitimate son, Howell sees it as a foregone conclusion that he will inherit and become master of the plantation, and thereby continue to uphold a system in which some relatives “own” each other while others are forced to serve them.