“They ain’t your family, boy. I am more your mother standing right here now than that white man on that horse is your father.”
After Howell sells Hiram's mother, Hiram goes to live with Thena. She is not his blood relative, but she takes him in and cares for him. Yet Hiram continues to look up to his father and hopes to one day be the ruler of Lockless. For this reason, he is excited when his father orders him and Thena to come live in the state. But in a powerful statement, Thena reminds Hiram that found family is sometimes more important than blood relations. In his case, Hiram's father has never cared for him, and he committed the cruel act of selling his mother. In contrast, Thena has always watched over him.
“Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father would allow them to do.”
In this quote, Coates emphasizes the theme of appearances. The Quality make a great show of being refined and respectable in public. Yet when they get drunk this facade falls away and their true cruelty shows. At Howell’s dinner party, one of the guests gets so drunk that she slaps one of the Tasked men in waiting. Later, Hiram has similar thoughts about Elon Simpson, a wealthy white man who “is held to be a gentlemen in the city’s most respectable circles.” Yet his dark secret is that his money comes from illegally participating in the southern slave trade.
‘’The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be.’’
From a young age, Hiram noticed that the white masters had no knowledge about the basic things they needed to do for themselves to continue living. The white masters' whole society depends on the belief that they are better than their slaves. But in reality, they are completely dependent on them. Hiram realizes this and feels that the Tasked are in fact superior to the Quality.
“We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake.”
Here Coates draws out the themes of race, class, and how these different identities relate to each other. The “low whites” are impoverished. On the one hand, they are better off than the Tasked because the Quality do not enslave them and beat them. But at the same time, their class status means they must serve the Quality and suffer mistreatment just the same. Hiram reflects that the low whites, rather than uniting with enslaved people to challenge the slave-owning class, cling tightly to the only power they have: the power to mistreat Black people.
“Ain’t nobody out, son, you hear? Ain’t no out. All gotta serve. I like serving here more than at some other man’s Lockless. I will grant you that, but I am serving, of that I can assure you.”
In this quote, Coates foreshadows the way in which Georgie Parks will betray Hiram. Hiram and other Tasked have mythologized Georgie since he obtained his freedom. Yet Georgie makes it clear that as long as the institution of slavery remains, no one is truly free, for even free Blacks have to pay a price for their freedom by serving some master. Much later, Hiram understands how deeply slavery has impacted them, since even “our own heroes, our own myths, were but tools to further maintain the task.”
“[I]n forging these documents I felt something new arising in me and the new thing was power. The power extended out from my right arm, projected itself through the pen, and shot out through the wilderness, right at the heart of those who condemned us.”
In this quote, Coates explores the theme of power. Once, Hiram dreamed of power through ruling Lockless. But this power turns out to be a myth based on appearances. At Bryceton, for the very first time, Hiram begins to discover his own power. With his pen, he is able to forge documents that have the power to free people. In this way, he is finally able to do something to fight against slavery.
“There is a moment in the stormy lives of a few blessed colored people, a moment of revelation, when the sky opens up, the clouds part, and a streak of sun cuts through, conveying some infinite wisdom from above, and this moment comes not from Christian religion, but from the sight of a colored man addressing a white one as Raymond White now did as he turned to the white man. ‘But you are not home.’ ”
When Hiram comes to Philadelphia, he feels freer than he has ever felt in his life. In this quote, his newfound sense of freedom becomes even more powerful. Raymond speaks defiantly to Mary’s former master. Back in Hiram’s home state of Virginia, the Quality or the hounds would severely punish this act. But in Philadelphia the laws of the state, as well as the supportive crowd at the docks, back him up. Bronson’s former master realizes that in this new context his power is useless, and the Underground frees Mary and her son.
“What I remember was one half of me wanted to get away from Sophia, to never speak to her again, to disappear into the Underground and cut away that girl who would not be my Sophia. And then another part, a part of me conceived in my mother’s own strife, then reared on the Underground, the part that was dazzled by the ‘university’ upstate, the part that found the wisdom to tell Robert that nothing is pure and thank God—was shocked to find such resentment still curdling in me.”
Hiram’s reunion with Sophia puts his new thinking on masculinity and women’s rights to the test. When he learns that Sophia had a baby with Nathaniel Walker, Hiram longs to run away and cut her out of his life, just as Robert wanted to do to Mary. Yet another part of him is shocked that he still holds such resentment. This is because he has reflected on his own origins from an enslaved mother and white father, and he has learned to think differently through his participation in the Underground. Still, Coates demonstrates that gaining a newfound perspective is easier in theory than in practice.
“To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die….For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
In Harriet’s dramatic, poetic declaration, the novel's reflections on memory reach their fullest expression. Slavery separated whole generations from their loved ones, families, homes, and cultures. Physically, these people are lost forever, and even the Underground can do nothing to change this painful reality. Yet the act of remembering maintains a connection to lost loved ones and keeps their memory alive. In this way, the novel presents memory as a form of rebellion against slavery.
“You are free and must act according to your own sense. Can’t be according to mine. Can’t be according to Corrine."
In this quote, Hawkins reminds Hiram of the various motivations that people have for participating in the Underground. Corrine participates out of her hatred of slavery. Hiram also hates slavery, but he is motivated by his love for his family and friends who are enslaved. Hawkins also recognizes this motivation, because he says he would have done anything to get himself and his sister out of Bryceton. Corrine asks Hawkins to convince Hiram not to go against her wishes. But Hawkins says that in the end, Hiram is free to act in the way that he thinks is best.
The Water Dancer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Water Dancer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.