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

Liberation from Bondage

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1006 words.)

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