Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has been hailed by Maya Angelou as the writer who has filled the void left open by the late James Baldwin, providing a critical, piercing, and brilliantly logical voice that analyzes a crooked American system.
Whether Coates intended to or not, the award-winning writer has met the calling as one of this generation’s intellectual leaders. His first three works – The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir detailing Coates love for hip-hop, and navigating his awkward teenage years of masculinity; Between the World and Me, a Baldwin-inspired letter to his son, which won a National Book Award; and We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays in which Coates analyzes race and argues that Donald Trump’s election was an attempt to erase the traces of a Black president– along with his columns at The Atlantic–were nothing short of trailblazing.
Considering his success as an author and former journalist, one would think that Coates writes without the burden of insecurities. But that’s not the case. During the ten years of writing his debut novel, The Water Dancer, a story about a slave named Hiram Walker who has a photographic memory, Coates had reservations about releasing the book after fellow award-winning author Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award for The Underground Railroad.
“I expressed my concerns to my editor, but he told me that I was in good hands,” Coates explained to Oprah Winfrey last night (Sept. 23) during an interview at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. “There’s room for other voices about slavery,” Coates said to Winfrey.
While The Water Dancer is about Walker’s experience navigating the Underground Railroad network of routes and safe houses for runaway slaves, Whitehead’s work is about an actual railroad that is underground.
The Water Dancer takes place on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Coates explained to Winfrey that he visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation as well as plantations in Georgia and other parts of the Deep South to help him better understand the daily life of a slave.
Coates writes The Water Dancer as if he’s an actual plantation tourist guide. Walker’s journey through wooded areas is filled with anxiety. He’s actually captured a few times throughout the book. In Coates’ other works, his writing is layered like a verse by Jay-Z, who Coates often references in We Were Eight Years in Power. Here, Coates is more straightforward, which surprisingly doesn’t take away from his creativity. The candidness and cleverness that packs The Water Dancer is reminiscent of Coates comic book writing.
Walker, who is the narrator of The Water Dancer, is born into slavery, and lost his mother after she was sold at a slave auction. In Coates’ essay A Case for Reparations, he writes, “blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and sport.” Here, Walker’s photographic memory is used to amuse the guests of his slave master, who Walker discovers is his father.
The novel’s protagonist, as Coates intended to do, is a special black man. Walker knew of his special powers early in life. “By the time I was five I could, having only heard it once, holler out a work song, its calls and responses, and to that add my own improvisations, all to the wide-eyed delight of my elders.”
He continues: “I was a strange child. I talked before I walked, through I never talked much, because more than anything, I watched and remembered.”
Coates also plays with fun historical references. When Walker finally experiences freedom as a black man in Philadelphia, he enjoys eating gingerbread. This is a direct reference to Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery, where Washington writes how he wished to eat ginger-cakes as a free man.
While Coates may have had reservations about penning a book about slavery after the publication of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, The Water Dancer stands alone in the fact that this book doesn’t dwell on the brutalities of slavery. Instead, Coates uses his voice to focus on the magical, mental powers of a black man–sort of like he does when writing his Black Panther comic strips. While The Water Dancer is candid, Coates does add an unexamined layer of mental acuity to the story of slavery.