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, as a real person, to support the case for reparations.
Letter to My Son, excerpted before publication of Between the World and Me, 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 those works, there has been little effort for the US to consider its “moral debt” to the descendants of slaves. Moreover, since 2015, police have killed hundreds of African-Americans either wrongly or mistakenly, yet no laws were broken in doing so.
Coates latest effort on African-Americans combines all of his historical knowledge in, The Water Dancer (2019), a novel of full of magical realism.
The historical fiction is set during the oppressive nature 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. Moreover, 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 abolitionists as fodder to set up various dramas that characters must navigate. In doing so, Coates created a world so different from reality, while at the same time a believable world based on American history.
San Quentin’s community college, Prison University Project put together a book club to read and discuss The Water Dancer. About 25 incarcerated men and selected folks from the streets met on a Thursday afternoon for the review.
Most of the free people were of the liberal mind, yet not readily familiar with the experiences of the incarcerated men. Some of the thought provoking discussions focused on whom Coates was writing to as well as the common dehumanization elements in prisons and slavery.
The following narration describes what it Hiram’s enslavement felt like—emphasis drawn on family separation:
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 you 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 institutionalization and detachment from society: 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 the docility and hopelessness that comes with slavery and incarceration through Hiram’s experiences: 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 the Hiram’s memory as a literacy device to carry the novel’s plot, which translates to “freedom by any means necessary.”
It was remarkably humanizing for the free and incarcerated to tackle such a sensitive topic together through historical fiction and magical realism in a college inside a prison.