The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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“Sloth was literal death for us, while for them, it was the whole ambition of their lives.”

Hiram is born into slavery in Virginia. Although he’s far more educated and capable than his bumbling white half-brother Maynard, Hiram is tasked with being his brother’s servant. When the book begins, both of them are about to be drowned in a river before we go into a flashback.

We learn that Hiram has a photographic memory. The only thing he can’t remember is his mother, who was sold away when he was just a little boy. He then moves in with a woman whose children were all sold away. Eventually, Hiram’s father decides to make him a house servant where his special talent gets noticed.

He’s given the opportunity to learn how to read and outshines his brother. He learns that while whites are in charge, they’re actually the weak ones because they’re so dependent on their slaves. He also notes that things are worse for free blacks in a way. Since slaves are property, nobody would strike another person’s slave anymore than they’d whip another person’s horse, but free blacks can be abused by anybody.

Slaves aren’t the only people who have it bad during the slavery era. Poor whites have it bad too, as do women. Also house servants don’t have it as bad as field hands. There’s a rumor of white people who buy slaves just to torture and kill them. I hadn’t thought of this before, but serial killers of the time would have been able to commit murder legally.

Hiram eventually discovers that he has the ability to teleport and he joins the Underground where he fights slavery with paperwork. He meets Harriet Tubman who also has the same power. He learns the stories of several other people along the way, so we get a lot of heart-breaking stories within the main story. The title of the book, by the way, comes from the practice of water dancing, which is dancing with a jug of water on top of your head and trying not to spill a drop.

My only nitpick with this book is the fact that Hiram can’t remember his mother because the memory is too traumatic. Studies have found that the more traumatic and stressful a memory is, the better and more detailed our recollection of it is. Most of the time, when someone “recovers” a repressed memory, what’s actually happening is a false memory is being created. (Studies have shown it’s incredibly easy to create false memories in someone using hypnosis or suggestive questioning. Eyewitness testimony is incredibly unreliable and many people will even confess to crimes they didn’t commit if interrogated long enough.) Of course, teleportation and photographic memory aren’t real either, so I should probably just consider Hiram’s ability to repress memories another one of his superpowers.

I listened to this on audio book. The narrator is great and even sings the songs. This book is filled with many great lines and poetic language. For example, when Hiram is comparing his younger immature notion of love to his older more mature conception of it, he says, “Love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown.” Highly recommended.

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