Whatever we know about the enslavement of black people in America, little of it comes from firsthand, written accounts of those who endured it.
Such was the design of chattel slavery. The humanity of the enslaved was not important in the system’s scheme; profits were.
For much of his career as an essayist, non-fiction author and public intellectual whose work has greatly shaped the national conversation around race relations, Ta-Nehisi Coates has sought those rare African American testimonies. The written record yielded some. Yet, there are not nearly enough to fill in the gaps left by the millions of black people whose experiences were never committed to text. Coates’ debut novel “The Water Dancer,” enters the void.
Set in antebellum Virginia, it tells the story of Hiram Walker, son of an enslaved black woman and the white plantation owner who holds her in bondage. Hiram is gifted both in intellect and ability. He is able to transport or “conduct” himself from one realm to another, a skill he tries to harness to save others in slavery’s maw. Because of his abilities, he’s drafted into the Underground Railroad.
But as much as the novel is steeped in magical realism, not unlike Octavia E. Butler’s classic, “Kindred,” Coates novel is also a work of historical fiction. Real-life people such as Harriet Tubman, make appearances. The Richmond abolitionist and Union spy-ring leader, Elizabeth Van Lew serves as a model for a pivotal character. And there two brothers modeled on William and Peter Still, African American brothers who were conductors on the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Coates, will be in conversation with bestselling novelist and Emory University professor Tayari Jones on Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. at the Atlanta Symphony Hall. We spoke with him about storytelling, discretion and what it means to be free.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: While you were a blogger and writer for The Atlantic, you wrote a lot about the Civil War and enslavement. In “The Water Dancer,” I see bits of themes from your other work from “The Beautiful Struggle,” and even your work on the “Black Panther” comics. Can you talk about that through-line?
A: With “Black Panther,” that was my natural aesthetic taste. In terms of the Civil War blogging, that stuff really just amounted to research. For me, writing is as much about trying to get something down as it is about figuring out, what I think and what my angle is. So, so much of that stuff helped me figure out what enslavement was and where it sat within American history.
Q: In reading the descriptions of the Virginia landscape in your opening paragraphs and throughout the novel, how many maps, Google Earth scans did you scan and actual drives did you take to create this world so vividly?
A: I had a number of maps, from Albemarle County, Virginia where Monticello is and Charlottesville. I had this really cool railway map from the 1850s that showed all the actual rails. There’s a scene where Hiram catches the train out of Virginia and ends up in Philadelphia. So I knew what the actual stops were. And then when he got to Philadelphia, I had maps from that period. But probably most important, I took a number of trips to Virginia. I had to consult a number of research books to figure out what did people eat, how did they cook it, just what their daily lives were like.
Q: You had a lot of factual details about enslavement that might surprise some people. Some people were allowed to grow crops in their own small gardens and sell them in markets and sometimes to the people who owned them. What details did you uncover that surprised you?
A: I didn’t know some slaves had toothbrushes. I didn’t know they had spectacles and marbles and dominoes. All these little knickknacks. All these scenes in the book of Hiram getting himself together in the morning, a lot of that was taken from knowing what daily life was like at Monticello.
Q: Hiram is biracial, so he has certain access. Can you talk about that?
A: I’ve always been interested in the intimacy, for lack of a better term, that was such a feature of enslavement and antebellum slavery. Often, the people who labored in the fields or in the house were literally blood relatives of the people that owned them. There was the centrality of rape and sexual assault in the era of enslavement. Last I looked, on average, any individual African American will have around 20 percent of DNA that comes out of Europe. That’s not a mistake. That’s a holdover of what happened to us.
Q: And that’s one of the things I noticed in the book. You walk right up to the door of an atrocity, and you knock, but you don’t open the door. So we don’t see the sexual assault of a character but know it has happened. See the scars of a whipping but not the act.
A: I felt like it was really important to take on some tough material that I’m not making into a spectacle because we have those images in our minds already. We know what happened on the plantation with black women. There’s no need to go on for 10 pages about it. What I was most interested in was not the visceral horrors, but the very real pain of emotional horrors. The separation from the children. To me, that was truly the horrific thing. I didn’t want it to be slavery porn. There’s no need for that.
Q: Throughout, you have characters that are privileged whites, poor whites and black people who are, for the most part, enslaved. They’re all working together to end this horror. You could have made the white characters more tangential than you did. Why that choice?
A: Because that’s what the Underground Railroad was. It was integrated. But what I thought was most important was not to have these white saviors. You had them doing important things, but they couldn’t be the protagonist. If there was a savior, it was Harriet Tubman.
Q: The way you constructed female characters, the way they move through the world, with agency, who read some of those passages for you as you constructed them?
A: My editor is a black man, and then my wife read the book. I felt pretty comfortable writing about Thena [Hiram’s surrogate mother] and Sophia [Hiram’s love interest] as not tangential…One of the delicate things about the book is I’m trying, on the one hand, to embody this 19th-century attitude about gender that Hiram might have had while making room for somebody like Sophia, where it was an issue to be herself.
Q: You write that slavery is, “everyday longing. You bury the longing because you know where it must lead.” What are some of the scars and damage African Americans still carry from that unrequited longing?
A: Shame. Shame over not being able to protect…and realizing that you can’t.
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