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Whiteness in The Water Dancer: A Novel Reflection on Antiracist Work Then and Now

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I had the rare opportunity and good fortune recently to be a keynote speaker at the Color of Education Conference, which also featured Ta-Nehisi Coates. We didn’t actually meet at the event; I spoke in the morning; he spoke in the afternoon. But I was thrilled to be in that space with him. Beside deeply admiring Coates and his writing, I feel as if my thinking as an antiracist educator and speaker has been conversation with his since I first read his Atlantic article on reparations five years ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that our writing and impact are on the same plain, but I often joke that a perspective he takes in his work has a way of undoing my own: I tell White people they are White. He tells them they only think they are White. Meanwhile, I’m actually afraid that many White people neither acknowledge nor think they are White. On my own journey, it has been incredibly valuable to recognize that I am White, and that my Whiteness has an impact on my life. Recognizing my Whiteness renders me part of the racial problem in the U.S. — and therefore requires me to be part of the solution. In the morning at this conference, I told White people they are White. In the afternoon, Coates told them they aren’t really White they have merely been constructed as such. And while both views are critical to challenging racism, it sometimes feels like a game of leapfrog; both ideas are in the game, but one perspective seems to jump over the other, rendering the other a little flatter.

It is this tension in perspective that I’ve wrestled with these five years. I agree, of course, that Whiteness is a cultural construction. But I also think racism and racial injustice will not change in our nation until White people know that, whether they identify as White or not, they have been made to be White by the destructive racial system that is both our history and our current reality. By understanding that they are White, and what Whiteness means, they can begin to take responsibility for it.

On the flight home from the conference, I started reading Coates’ first book of fiction, The Water Dancer (all conference attendees received a copy) and again was struck by the connection and tension between his work and mine — and how his work pushes me to think more deeply about my own writing and speaking on matters of race and justice. Here we have a book in which Coates offers a perspective that is never presented in texts on slavery. The novel’s narrator, Hiram, is an enslaved man who is well-read and worldly with a sense of entitlement and choice. Hiram describes the feeling of entrapment rendered by slavery in such a way that a reader whose life is shaped more by entitlement and choice can relate. Coates, in other words, condenses in fiction a modern analysis of race, enslavement, and freedom via an enslaved character who is well-educated and relatively worldly. What caught my eye in particular is the way Coates also grapples with Whiteness and the role of White people in the fight against oppression. Does Coates intend to feature antiracist White people in this way? I don’t know. Can we have an honest discussion about ending racial oppression in the U.S. without considering White people? Again, I don’t know. Many would say “yes,” and I believe they would be correct. But as a White person engaged in a lifelong inquiry into my own role in working against racism, I seek those other conversations, the ones that do raise the question of what it is that White people should be doing, and how. I am grateful for the ways in which Coates’ novel joins and informs my inquiry — even if it does so without providing answers.

The Water Dancer is not about slavery. It is about the nature and possibility of freedom. It is also not about White people (or, if you prefer, people who think they are White). For his epigraph, Coates uses a quote from Frederick Douglass, “My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators.” With this epigraph, we know literally from page one that this is not the story of the master. And yet for Coates, that is not the same thing as refusing to consider the role of White people in a racist system. In The Water Dancer, Coates does not hesitate to tell stories of White people who fall outside of the “master” role. He uses these stories to demonstrate the ways in which White people, even the abolitionists and members of the Underground (the novel’s term for the Underground Railroad), necessarily and indelibly have a different relationship to the Task (the novel’s term for slavery) and to the abolition of the Task, than do the Tasked.

Take the character of Corrine Quinn, for example. Corrine is an operator on the Underground whose decoy is that she owns and manages a Virginia plantation, including as a pretend “master” of the Tasked people who belong to that estate. She lives a life committed to the abolition of slavery, and yet her approach can never be the same as those of people who were formerly enslaved, many of whom continue to pose as Tasked people while working with her on the Underground.

Coates writes, “Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave” (p. 370).

Corinne Quinn, in short, is anti-slavery, not necessarily pro-slave. This means she approaches the resistance to slavery in clear-cut, all-or-nothing ways, and often cannot tolerate the complexity of the people who navigate the issue from a position that has left them little choice, little range of motion. This difference, for Hiram (the main character, who is Tasked) and for the White people in the Underground, is critical. The White people fight slavery. Hiram and other formerly Tasked people fight for human beings who are enslaved — people with names and stories and lives, the people they love. Hiram says, “These people are not cargo to me. They are salvation. They saved me and should I be presented with any instance where I feel I must save them, I will do it” (p. 401).

In the novel, Coates makes it clear that struggles for liberation from racism, slavery, sexism, and classism have always been bound together, but fought on many fronts. Those battles have been shaped largely by the individuals involved — and by the constellation of identities they harbor in their bodies. The battles do not and cannot look the same for the characters, all of whom live in different circumstances. This reality means that some struggles for liberation compete against one another rather than against the source of oppression. It also means that many battles are fought in tragically incomplete ways.

Hiram’s ongoing dilemma of how to be free — and win freedom for those he loves in a land where no person of African descent is safe from kidnapping and enslavement — helps the reader feel what psychologist Howard Stevenson calls a Catch 33. White people are familiar with the conundrum in a Catch 22 situation in which you’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. Enslaved people — and many Black people today — are caught in a Catch 33, in which they are just damned by the impossibility of trying to be human in a system that denies their humanity. Hiram says, “The logic of it all was clear. But I felt myself now slipping into something darker…. The Task was a trap. Even Georgie was trapped. And so who was Corinne Quinn to judge such a man? Who was I, who’d run with no higher purpose save my own passions and my own skin?” (p. 176). Coates helps us see that a White person standing outside the Catch-33 of Blackness in America should not cast judgment upon the choices a Black person makes within a system in which there are no liberatory choices, where there is no clear path in which one’s own journey to liberation is without compromise.

I find myself fascinated by the White anti-slavery characters in the novel. I wonder how much I would even think of them were I not White. I scrutinize the choices they make, and the circumstances that shape those choices. I am fascinated by the fact that Corinne, though a free White woman, is trapped in Virginia. I marvel at the way that on her plantation they are able to create something new, something resembling what Martin Luther King, Jr. (and, later, bell hooks) called a Beloved Community. I admire the depiction of their lives once they are able to establish relationships outside of the prescribed roles of slavery — that they are able to be in community together, to serve one another, to sing, to laugh. It is this community that solicits from Hiram one of the first moments of unmitigated joy that the reader witnesses: “And now here, I did something very curious — I smiled. And it was an open and generous smile, one that rose up out of a feeling with which I was so rarely acquainted — joy. I was joyous at the thought of what was coming. I was joyous at the thought of my role in this.”

Corinne is fanatical and flawed. She puts Hiram through untold suffering in the name of the Underground movement. And still, it seems, Coates does not condemn her; he sees her as a product of her time. One of Hiram’s elders says, “She is a good woman, I think. And they are, no doubt, in a good fight. But what I have seen up here [in the North], what I have seen of your momma, your cousins, your uncles, ain’t just the fight. I have seen the future. I have seen what we are fighting for. I am thankful for Corrine. I am thankful for the fight. But I am most thankful to have seen all that is coming” (p.225).

I read these words and I inexplicably find myself feeling grateful for the generosity Coates offers in this way of showing us Corinne’s flaws while acknowledging her positionality. He sees Corinne, like his protagonist, Hiram, not as a victim of circumstance but a survivor of circumstance, one whose life and path cannot be envisioned or enacted apart from her circumstance.

In Coates’s generosity, there also lies a critique, or perhaps a statement, about the limits and possibilities of White co-conspirators. Corinne’s repulsion or revulsion against slavery, that which drives her to fight against it, simply cannot come from the same place that Hiram’s does. And the methods available to her to fight it — for the same reasons — cannot be the same.

Why tell these stories of White people working in collaboration with Black people, against a system that holds them all down? While I find Coates’ willingness to venture down this path to be generous, it also feels strategic. As Beverly Daniel Tatum, former President of Spelman College, first said, White people need role models. White people need to know there is a way of being White in our society that is not merely colorblind, ignorant, or racist. White people need to know that they can be antiracist. They (we) need to see White antiracist role models, in all of their imperfections and situational limitations.

This fictional portrayal of White people standing up against a system of slavery that was constructed for their benefit (or, rather, for their benefit should they choose to accept all of the restrictive covenants precluding their own humanity and that of the Tasked) reminds White people today that we, too, can choose to stand outside the system of racism and racial injustice. We can choose to oppose it. In the novel, the stakes of doing so are high, but so are the rewards of interconnectedness and interdependency that result from joining together to confront that system that dehumanizes all of us. I see Coates as being generous here because I could imagine him telling this story with no redemption for White people, no ability to see alternative possibilities other than the lowly seat of the master.

Coates grants us a glimpse of the barren, lifeless fate that awaits those who sell their humanity for the lowly seat of the master. In The Water Dancer, it is clear that those who are Tasked are human beings and that the Worthy (the novel’s term for enslavers) are not; the worthy forsake their own humanity to enslave others. Coates writes of how the enslaved persist in building families, lives, and relationships even amid the cruelty of family separation and violence, even as they as individuals cannot own their own bodies and destinies. This fierceness to love at any expense, lies in sharp contrast to the relationships Coates depicts between White people, which are so formalized, so inauthentic, so full of lies, so shaped by broken individuals in a decomposing social structure, unable to make the essential synapses of family, community, and connection fire. This distinction is made clear in Coates’s portrayal of the Howell family, the land holding family that technically owns Hiram. To a person, they seem paper thin and pathetic compared to those illustrated by Coates among the Tasked. As Hiram says, “We were better than them — we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives” (p. 35).

Coates doesn’t have to go further than this. He could throw up his hands at the Howells and say, “That’s what White people get. That’s all that they are. If they want to resist it, they can talk about it among themselves.” But instead, in his depiction of White resisters, he suggests both a critique and a way forward.

I’m struck that I come away from this novel that is fundamentally focused on Black liberation (although the word Black does not appear once in the text, I believe) with an almost obsessive focus on Whiteness. “What does it say about White people?” I ask. “What is the role of White people in working against racism? What does Coates want White people to do?” Perhaps that is one of the ways this important and moving novel was meant to be read. Maybe not. But for me — as a White person, with my positionality, with this set of questions before me — it may be the only way.