I recently finished reading “The Water Dancer,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel. This novel was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, and Ms. Winfrey herself described the story as powerful.
Although it took some time for me to take in and digest this novel, I can confidently say that I’m glad I took my time with this book. A gripping masterpiece like “The Water Dancer” should be savored, with a thrilling and colorful story laced with a powerful message that will stick with me for an eternity.
I won’t spoil the story – this is something that everyone should take their time to read. However, I was deeply moved to write this essay on one of the novel’s most definite themes – the power and importance of memory. The main protagonist, Hiram, has an exceptional memory, and with his memory, he can channel a unique ability; the power of Conduction. With Conduction, Hiram and other notable members of the Underground, can escape and help others escape the bondage of slavery.
The power of Conduction is very similar to the known power of storytelling. In “The Water Dancer,” Conduction is a power that can physically move slaves from the South to freedom in the North, using a Conductor to lead them. The below quote sums up beautifully the power of Conduction:
“The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses. All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved”.
While the context of this quote was referring to an actual escape from the South, when I read this, it deeply resonated with me. Immediately, I thought of all of the trials and harsh experiences that I’ve gone through in my short life. It’s so easy for us to shut away bad memories, to bury them in the back of our consciousness. What we tend to overlook is the fact that everything that happens to us, good or bad, is a lesson and a way for us to gain strength to propel ourselves forward – to move us.
Although we don’t possess a supernatural power to move ourselves and others to another physical location, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ message did not miss its mark. Mental and emotional slavery is very real, and sometimes, we can be our own biggest obstacle. Whether through the stories of our predecessors or our own experiences, we can draw power from these memories to move ourselves to freedom. Many of us, including myself, have the self-sabotaging tendency to shut out painful memories or to ignore the past that bore the freedoms and liberties we take advantage of every day. And while we walk around with more freedom than our ancestors, we remain trapped in a design of our own making. We shackle ourselves with the ideology that we are lesser than others and treat ourselves and allow others to treat us as such. We’ve convinced ourselves that we aren’t as smart, have fewer opportunities than others, and turn to vices that provide a shallow sense of self-worth.
We can free ourselves from this slavery by channeling our own form of Conduction. By reflecting on the stories of those who came before us, who overcame the greatest of obstacles to rise to the top, we can move ourselves to freedom. We can draw on the power of Conduction by looking at our own lives, grateful for how far we’ve come, albeit everything we’ve been through. Look how strong you are, how smart, how brave you are, to have made it this far in the journey we call life.
Oprah was 100% correct when she said that “The Water Dancer” is “as beautiful as it is tragic.” Not only did this novel vividly convey the horrors of slavery, but it identified the parallelism between the physical slavery our ancestors endured and the mental and emotional slavery that we succumb to today. Coates expertly provided the answer to how we can free ourselves, contrasting with the tone of his bestselling non-fiction book, “Between the World and Me.”
For those who haven’t familiarized themselves with the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates, it should be a priority as his work is startlingly relevant and necessary, and he will undoubtedly be remembered in history alongside the most notable African American writers.