Inhuman Bondage

The Water Dancer BY Ta-Nehisi Coates. New York: One World. 416 pages. $28.

The cover of The Water Dancer

“Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose”—so said a tenebrous Toni Morrison in a 1988 speech at the University of Michigan. It was a canny, candid pronouncement: Morrison had registered a horripilating chill in the body of American literature, the presence of a ghost passing through—that of the Afro-American. A muted, neglected specter, she said, it stalked the canon in a close orbit, reputed not to exist. Her genius was to listen for it, to log the whispers of its alternate and unsanctioned histories. What she heard was a “manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked, and unmasking language,” one that she would spend her career as a novelist, editor, and teacher contributing to. The idea, she told her Michigan audience, was “to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Afro-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.”

At the root of that culture was a foundational injury: Antebellum slavery was a dark vogue with a cruel, renewing afterlife. Americans, living with emancipation for a century and more, dramatized even still the consequences of slavery, in reductive, ridiculous tableaux we now choose to call racial reckoning. It was an absurd, deranging tautology: Freedom, it seemed, was an unfinished business—or else enslavement was. Either formulation corroborated the persistence of that peculiar institution, which had managed to extend beyond its expiry date. So, a paradox, and an irony of manumission: liberation from bondage—intrepid instances of flight, indenture agreements, long-awaited civil suffrage—concluding only ever in fresher frustrations, along with the old torments.

Such is the recursive quality of history: an experience of the present as redolent of a past felt to be finished, finite—though hardly exhaustible. Infinitely available to be written and written about, History desiccated into Literature. The staggering annals of chattel slavery were themselves a perverse literature, derived from a vast and bureaucratic panopticon that held its subjects in prohibiting sight. So much scrutiny—rather literally a white gaze—necessitated complex systems of indexing, and generated lasting and suggestive paper effects. An incomplete catalogue of this print culture might include mercenary newspaper advertisements and bills of sale; plantation ledgers and scriveners’ censuses; affranchisement papers and Cartesian slave narratives; and pitiless bounty postings: appalling ephemera all, and metonymic for the unportrayable sublime.

This assembled chronicle of enslavement—flecked with fissures, omissions, and silences—must emphasize apophatically what was lost, destroyed, undocumented. The archive of subjugation remains ignobly incomplete. Vulturine impossibilities—of representation, inclusion—descend and converge upon it. How, then, to transcribe and remediate slavery’s great aporia? In league with Morrison, contemporary writers answer the question by rearticulating it. To Saidiya Hartman, a scholar and cultural historian, the language of Morrison’s ghosts might contain the power “to tell a story about degraded matter and dishonored life,” and even establish new “ventures toward another mode of writing.”

Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, published earlier this year, discovers that mode. Her third book, Wayward Lives is what Hartman has called a “fugitive text of the wayward,” enacting a disinhibited archival practice of repair. Here, muted voices erupt into a contoured stream of language, pulsing and live; the subaltern speak, cackle, elaborate, withhold, decry. This quality allies it with Hartman’s earlier attempts at canonical repair, in which she conceptualizes “what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done” by those of whom no account exists. Intruding upon those lacunae, Hartman substitutes the narrative of a people’s silence with a likelier and contextualized one of her own. Hers is a vision of history as counter-history: a recitative, nearly resuscitative, view that enlists the imagination into the labor of reparation.

Hartman employs a resolutely anarchic method, a “critical fabulation” that is predicated on achieving a necessarily impossible goal: “redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.” It’s pioneering work, but not without a certain risk. Erring speculation can give way to unwitting experiments in fiction, or misadventures in mendacity. Fortunate that Hartman has caution to match her daring: “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” she asks. One answer might be that it can’t. Even the records that have survived slavery are themselves fictions, authored predominantly by the same unreliable narrators who enslaved a people. Composed at the outer limits of plausibility, Hartman’s text joins their ranks, installing itself in the vacancies left by slashed opportunity.

Slave narratives, perhaps the first true literary tradition attributable to blacks in the Americas, performed much the same function. A fusion of the true and the incredible, these were tales of psychosomatic deliverance, and a prototype for the Negro autobiography later to come. Peripatetic and transporting, these stories hinted at the formal influence of novels like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with its narrative displacements, as well as that of captivity narratives like Mary Rowlandson’s, which were often revealed to be xenophobic fabrications and agitprop.

The slave narrative could be propaganda, too, and even a work of pure fiction. Some were both. It’s possible that a seminal entry, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, from 1789 and a model for Frederick Douglass’s own, achieved this dual status. The truth-value of the account has been called into question; it might have been ingeniously concocted abolitionist propaganda. (Among other inconsistencies, Equiano may have been born in the US rather than in Africa, where he purported to be from.) But contemporary scholarly doubt has only enhanced the artifact’s value as both objet d’art and historical resource, such that Equiano, whether sincere raconteur or savvy prevaricator, remains a useful figure for modern study.

So to novelize a slave narrative, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has done in The Water Dancer, his Oprah-ordained debut novel, is to fictionalize a fiction. The redundancy could have been constructive. Writers have returned to the scene of slavery and produced enhancing, speculative stories that double back to reinforce the historical material from which they draw. Morrison’s Beloved marks an apotheosis for this sort of undertaking; tellingly, the book appeared in 1987, a more figurative ideological precursor to the lucid pronouncements of her lecture the following year. But Coates has done the reverse: He has erected, in a simpering series of nonfiction—The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and We Were Eight Years in Power—the edifice for his plodding, ahistorical novel. Indeed, The Water Dancer’s version of slavery is dotted with minute factual deviations—a narcissism of small differences—that aim to situate the novel at a liberating remove from strict historical realism. But liberated into what? The condition of Hiram Walker, the protagonist and narrator, bears every conceivable resemblance to slavery—so why has Coates rechristened that paralyzing predicament as “the Task”? The designation reeks of euphemism, or of the corroding consolations of “subversion,” though a more charitable reader might mark it a productive semantic revisionism, enabling a new view of familiar tropes. No doubt Coates himself would.

It’s hard to agree. Coates reports that he worked on The Water Dancer for ten years, a time frame that would make it coeval with the serial long-form works gathered in We Were Eight Years in Power, his 2017 essay collection. That compendium, a survey of Coates’s contributions to the “discourse” on race under the Obama administration, contained ambitious, unremitting diagnoses of the culture; yet it also shared his new novel’s liberties with history. To critics like Cornel West, the book reshuffled the truths of the country’s past to regard President Obama as messianic, and the end of his presidency as a kind of national moral eschaton. (Drone strikes and deportations, of which his presidency saw a rise, were evidently inconsequential to this view.) To West, Coates’s work was “narrowly aesthetic,” belonging to “the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible.”

The Water Dancer corrects for that invisibility, and then overcorrects. Its Tasked men and women, in the fictitious Virginia town of “Lockless” (the novel has a congenital allergy to subtlety), enjoy the wayward lives and enact the beautiful experiments of Hartman’s title; their home, “the Street,” recalls what Hartman has called “the terrible beauty of the slum,” and is where the Tasked form their associative communities, bonded by an awful mutuality of circumstance. Shared, too, in their improvised, eked-out society are origin, resources, accommodations, history, labor: a synthesis that reads like communism avant la lettre, of the actually existing sort once found in regions of the American South. Scenes set here are the novel’s best, its most historically engaged. Coates writes moments of unity among the Tasked with fervor and care, evoking the retained, imperishable traditions of life before enslavement.

One such custom lends the novel its name: Water dancing, in the book, is a jubilee choreography practiced by Tasked women on holidays. Hiram’s mother was a water dancer, and he has visions—or memories—of her dances, which involved “an earthen jar on her head” that “did not move . . . seemed almost a part of her, so that no matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” The dance bears open relation to a reputed instance of Tasked fugitivity, endowed with legendary status by the book’s characters: “rumor and whisper” accord Hiram’s grandmother “the largest escape of tasking folk—forty-eight souls—ever recorded in the annals of Elm County. . . . It was said that [she] had simply led them down to the river Goose, walked in, and reemerged on the other side of the sea”—that is, she water danced to Africa.

Some few hundred pages of slack, distended subplot must elapse, containing Hiram’s own halting water dances from one shore to another, for Hiram to realize this. Fostering the misrecognition is his more wonted name for the act, “Conduction.” The word is meant to evoke the Underground Railroad and its so-called Conductors, estranged and refigured in The Water Dancer as a revolutionary guerrilla faction networked throughout the lower states. The “Underground” (per the novel’s preferred diminutive) machinates clandestinely, dispatching sleeper-cell units of freedmen: volunteers for (re)enslavement to plantations as reconnoiterers, saboteurs, and emancipators. Its Conductors are empowered men and women like Hiram, with the mystical ability to convey, en masse, absconders from slavery.

Is this absurdism, or a touch of high fantasy? There would be precedent for the latter, with Octavia Butler’s Kindred and its implicating chronological relocations. But Conduction is hardly so compelling: The process, Hiram learns, emits a blue or “spectral green” light and draws on “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.” It is difficult to read this and credit it duly. While it sounds of a piece with Hartman’s ductile, sanguineous methodology, this approach seizes up in Coates’s hands. We recognize the petrified flexors of a historical muscle: narrative rigor mortis. It may be true that “memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom,” as one character says, but to learn that this character is Moses, or rather Harriet Tubman under a regrettable sobriquet, exemplifies the many errata of memory, the corruptible aspect of transformation and even distortion uncovered in its exercise.

History is a genre and genre has a history. The history of slavery, variously noble and debased and destined always to be so, is most generatively available to its sober stewards—Morrison, Butler, and Hartman among them. Their books register as productive, rearview encounters with the fact and feuilleton of slavery, exemplars for our extant and imminent own. Ta-Nehisi Coates might do well to be Conducted by their example, one of long and elongating memory.

Lake Micah edits at Simon & Schuster and is a freelance writer on literature and the arts.