Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

Liberation from Bondage

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Eschewing the customary concepts of “slave” and “owner,” Coates insists on a new lexicon to express relationships among human beings. Those who imagine themselves to be superior and, therefore, entitled to rule over others call themselves the Quality. The workers that they subjugate and force to labor on their behalf are known as the Tasked. But the structural relationship between these two groups and between any two members of each group does not dictate every member’s understanding of the possibilities that may become open to them. Imagining a different reality is a fundamental step in striving to achieve that difference. A third category, the Freed, is available to Tasked people who conceive of a different life for themselves and leave bondage.

Hiram, the protagonist, is a member of the Tasked. He speaks of imagining a different life than his Quality bosses intended for him. At first, this vision is limited to sharing their status—“I imagine myself in their ranks”—but he later understands that his power can actually be a means to pursue his liberation from the entire system.

Once Hiram realizes that he can access a power to make such changes into reality, his life is forever altered. The moment of epiphany is itself a moment of life or death: when he and his half-brother, Maynard, fall into a river, he survives, but Maynard—who, as a member of the Quality, is also Hiram’s boss—perishes. As Hiram gains freedom from this master (though not all Quality people), he also discovers his latent power of transporting people through space. The ongoing process of developing and harnessing that power, called Conduction, and learning about the responsibility it imposes, shapes Hiram’s life and that of everyone he cares about may now help gain freedom through the Underground. Through imagining a better future for themselves and harnessing the power of the past, the characters of The Water Dancer are able to pursue avenues toward the liberation they desire.

The Power of Collective Strength

The idea that collective strength is far greater than that of any individual recurs throughout the novel. Although Hiram initially thinks he is unique in having the power of Conduction, he learns that others also have it and, more importantly, that he needs their help to learn how to use it. While family is an important element within the concept of collectivity or community, the biological family is severely limited in this story, because Quality people routinely split up Tasked families, especially by selling individual members. Hiram is hampered in his personal development because his mother was sold away, but he is also constrained in developing his power because she was the source of it. To use the power effectively and help those he holds dear, Hiram must learn to expand his sense of identification with others and to trust strangers.

The specific people Hiram meets throughout the story include Moses, who turns out to be Harriet Tubman. Beyond those individuals, however, Hiram must learn the essential value of his connection with other members of the Tasked, as an abstract entity, as well as those who have become Freed. Equally important are the bonds of affect that tie him to the home he grew up in, Lockless plantation, and his people’s ancestral homeland in Africa. Accepting Lockless as his place, not just that of the Quality owners, is a key element in positioning himself to help others transition from Tasked to Freed.

Memory and the Past

Hiram’s separation from his mother, other Tasked people, and his African heritage is not only a physical issue. His mother was sent away from him during his childhood, so he cannot remember her; but in order to activate a particular kind of energy which sets his conduction powers in motion, Hiram must access memories of his mother. 

Coates writes, “They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible.” Here, he refers to the practice of white plantation owners interrupting black family lines by selling the children of slaves to other plantations, thereby separating families. Hiram is the child of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner. Hiram discusses his complicated identification with his father, even as he sees the cruelty that his father allows and exists upon. Ultimately, Hiram accesses memories of his mother in order to activate his supernatural power. Coates implies that there is power to be found in finding and preserving memories of black bloodlines which have been interrupted by slavery—that the power of memory can cross physical space itself.

The Water Dancer is not just about individual memory. Hiram’s process of forging bonds with his multiple communities, which occurs along with the development of his Conduction power, is tightly intertwined with that of remembering. The inclusion of narratives of enslaved people who drowned during the Middle Passage reminds the reader that the story is part of a much larger body of memory and loss. Hiram’s own disrupted family line is only one of many torn-apart families discussed in the book, which both dives into and extends beyond Hiram’s own narrative.

The references to the deaths of enslaved people at sea also emphasize the importance of water as a medium of memory in the novel. Hiram’s power of instantaneous travel across land, called “Conduction,” is activated when he touches water and draws upon his memories. Water, and particularly the Atlantic Ocean, are often prominent symbols in works regarding slavery, due to the large number of enslaved people who died during the Middle Passage. However, Hiram is able to use the presence of water to his advantage, as a conduit of individual and collective memory and a means to freedom. In this way, Coates claims both water and memory as elements from which his protagonist draws power rather than only pain.

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