Two essays that appeared in The Atlantic magazine set up Ta-Nehisi Coates as a voice for African-Americans. He wrote The Case for Reparations in 2014 and in 2015, he produced Letter to My Son.
In The Case for Reparations Coates cites, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.”
Coates argues, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” In the article, Coates uses the in-depth history of Clyde Ross, a real person, to support the case for reparations.
In Letter to My Son, excerpted before publication of Between the World and Me, Coates tells his 15-year-old,
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” The father cites his own life and compelling evidence to say that African-Americans live under a deliberately inflicted state of violence.
Since the publication of those works, there has been little movement to push for the US to consider its “moral debt” to the descendants of slaves. Since 2015, police have killed hundreds of African-Americans either wrongly or mistakenly, yet no laws were broken in doing so.
Coates’ latest focus on African-Americans combines all of his historical knowledge in, The Water Dancer (2019), a novel full of magical realism.
The historical fiction is set during the oppressive time of US slavery. The protagonist, Hiram, struggles against what it means to have a father and brother who are white, yet his darkened skin enslaves him. In the midst of subjugation, he has his eyes on a slave woman that his White uncle owns.
Coates uses his scholarly knowledge about the Underground Railroad, fugitive slave laws and the abolitionists as fodder to set up various dramas that his characters must navigate. In doing so, Coates created a world different from reality, while at the same time a believable world based on American history.
The following narration describes the feelings involved in Hiram’s enslavement. He fo- cuses most acutely on the sepa- ration from his family, another parallel to incarceration.
To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself.
The following passage points to Hiram’s acceptance of the conditions that created his stark reality as well as his detachment from humanity: Slavery is everyday longing, is being born into a world of forbidden victuals and tantalizing untouchables—the land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake.
Coates is able to capture Hiram’s docility and hopelessness that comes with slavery, which also is a condition shared with the incarcerated and rehabilitated: So many of us who went, went with dignity and respect. And it occurred to me how absurd it was to cling to morality when surrounded by people who had none.
Coates uses Hiram’s memory to recall events in great detail as a literary device to drive the novel’s plot, which translates to “freedom by any means
The Water Dancer is the product of Coates’ thinking in all of his works—that African Americans are integrated to all of US history, not just segregated segments that seem irrelevant today.
The story is a remarkably poignant exploration of oppression that has happened and can’t be changed. In The Water Dancer, Coates explores the possibility of what can be changed by using historical fiction and magical realism as a guide.