We had a packed meeting this month – with fourteen people and erupting conversations. Half of us had not finished reading The Water Dancer, by Ta-nehisi Coates, but most of us seemed to have been moved by the subject matter.
Ta-nehisi Coates was born in 1975—which makes him older than I guessed during the meeting. He attended Howard University from 1993-1997, and although he did not graduate, “Coates became a journalist, writing for a range of publications that included the Washington Times, Washington Post, Washington Monthly, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Village Voice, and the Atlantic.” In 2015, Coates’ second book, Between the World and Me, won the National Book Award for nonfiction.[i]
Our first responder this month found The Water Dancer to be an insightful and personal introduction to slavery. He said that he had never before had it brought home to his heart the psychological harm of being torn away from family. Another of us felt the sense of family to be particularly strong and moving.
We also discussed how slavery has existed throughout time – and still exists today. As one of us stated, “whoever has the power. . .” We could have had an engaging discussion about slavery in general, and slavery in the southern United States in particular, but The Water Dancer was our focus for this discussion. The author did not force us to read detailed descriptions of violence and abuse. One member thought that the understatement of the typical atrocities of slavery made the fact of it more horrifying. Another mentioned that the diverse books we read can often be traumatizing. The author’s fairness and understanding of humanity reminds me of Toni Morrison, offering white characters like the tutor/spy, fighting and dying to save a friend’s family from slavery.
Coates’ use of the terms “Tasked” and “Quality,” rather than slave and master, enabled us to relate to the story on multiple levels, including relevance to current events, the drudgery of doing laundry by hand, the importance of the family you make as well as the family you lose and the need for elders to keep track of possible relation so you don’t marry your own sister (and other relevant details that memory and history provide!). Did we like Corrinne? Was she a general or just another kind of “Quality,” controlling others?
In theory, the magic transport created through the power of memory and family enabled the author to tie in the myths[ii] created by Harriet Tubman’s astounding success as well emphasize the importance of these connections, but one of our group found it demeaning to Harriet Tubman[iii]. Which is amazing that both of these can be true and we can still be friends!
Several of us had difficulty getting into the book, perhaps because the author was trying to conceal this magic power, but once he was onto the Underground Railroad we were hooked. Still, some details were unclear and we wondered if it is our difficulty with the author’s style. This is his first novel. One member was reading slowly, looking up, learning, and appreciating. We went through the discussion questions to keep us on track and discovered many reasons water is important in the novel: conduction, travel, slave ships, connections, life.
I think in smaller groups we might have had a more in-depth discussion about some of these topics, but our size also gave us so much more to think about. I don’t usually list members names, both for privacy and accuracy, but these discussions and shared reading experiences are our connections and this journal is our memory: Javier, Marie, Paul, Laura, Dottie, Jean, Rose Marie, Phyllis, John, Ken, Mary, Pier, Audrey, me, and anyone else who is reading this! The discussion shouldn’t stop here. And our memories and histories matter! Add your thoughts and keep it going.
- Other works discussed/related:
- Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-nehisi Coates
- The Black Panther (graphic novels) by Ta-nehisi Coates
- God Help the Child (2015) by Toni Morrison
- Harriet Tubman: a Life in American History (2022) Kerry S. Walters
- Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler
- Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 missing Girl Case That Captivated A Nation (2017) by Brad Ricca
- The Slave Narratives: various collections available
- The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (1883) by William Still
- Wench (2010) by Dolores Perkins-Valdez
[i] Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2016). In Contemporary Black Biography (Vol. 131). Gale. https://link-gale-com.lvccld.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/K1606007427/BIC?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-BIC&xid=62499352 .
[ii] Fairly short, interesting reading;
Gross, T. (2019, September 24). Ta-Nehisi Coates on Magic, memory and the Underground Railroad. WBUR. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from https://www.wbur.org/npr/763477150/ta-nehisi-coates-on-magic-memory-and-the-underground-railroad .
[iii] The National Parks Services lists myths vs. facts about Harriet Tubman: