How do you unravel the legacy of white supremacy in the United States? This was the central question of the night as Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed his debut novel, The Water Dancer in the Evanston Township High School Auditorium Friday night.
Coates is best known for his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” and his books, Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power. His newest novel, The Water Dancer, details the story of Hiram Walker, a black man born a slave in Virginia, who struggles both with wanting freedom and with controlling mystical powers he possesses but does not understand. The fictional Walker encounters historical figures, including Harriet Tubman, throughout the novel as he grapples with having photographic recall for all memories, except those of his mother, who was sold into slavery by his father when Walker was 9 years old.
Coates was interviewed by poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib as part of a series of events hosted by the Family Action Network, a group that aims to connect community members through programming that educates and inspires the broader community.
Community members, ETHS students, teachers and parents crowded the auditorium, leaving the room without an empty seat. As they waited for the event to begin, many eagerly began to read the copy of Coates’ new novel they were given upon arrival.
“I don’t want to put up barriers in my work,” Coates said. “I don’t want to get into a space where the words become some sort of in-joke —the book was written to be read … I think I’ve always tried to write under the notion that the reader would catch up.”
In his opening remarks, Coates commented on the recent sentencing of Dallas police officer Amber Guyer, who shot Botham Jean, an unarmed black man, after she entered his apartment thinking it was her own. At the sentencing last Tuesday, Guyer received 10 years when a jury rejected her self-defense claims and convicted her of murder, spurring a wave of criticism.
“I wrote The Water Dancer because I thought even in the literature of enslavement, I’m not convinced that we always come off as human beings and that inability to come off as human beings has consequences even today,” Coates said. “I am all for forgiveness, but I have a hard time believing that if my son had walked into somebody’s apartment and shot some white women while she was eating a bowl of ice cream that they would have hugged him, stroked his hair and given him a Bible.”
The legacy of racism in the United States was a topic that continued beyond his opening statement, with Coates and Abdurraqib discussing subjects ranging from gentrification to the first literature they read about slavery and black people.
“The idea of who is human and who is not is in our literature, it’s in our arts, it’s in our movies, and it’s in our culture,” Coates said. “I felt that in general, the history of black people was presented as one of suffering, one of great physical suffering and people just beating on you. That was my earliest thought about slavery.”
Despite the seriousness of the topic at hand, Coates and Abdurraqib laughed with the audience as they commented on Kanye West’s turn, their favorite hip-hop albums and the fact that The Water Dancer had been named Oprah’s newest Book Club pick.
“The coolest thing about it is that Oprah’s a legit literature fan,” Coates said. “She called to talk about the book. She had questions, and she broke down crying.”
The level of honesty with which Coates answered each question and his ability to move from a lighthearted subject to a heavier one resonated with audience members.
“I found it fascinating,” Weinberg second-year Ben Borrok said. “I liked that he was a personable kind of guy that could have a conversation about music in the same breath of a conversation about slavery.”
Quinn Hughes, an ETHS junior, appreciated the opportunity to ask Coates about something he has grappling with himself.
“The fundamental question of, "does blackness have the capacity to progress past the object?" is something that I think demands being thought out, so I was really excited to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates’ interpretation of something that I’d been struggling with,” Hughes said. “I thought his answer was very thoughtful. It was something that is very consistent with the narrative that he has given to help us unpack and understand blackness.”
As Coates paralleled the struggles faced by Walker within his novel and the challenges black people face today throughout his talk, he acknowledged the fluidity of the past and the inability to know what actually happened.
“There is no 'how it was',” Coates said. “There’s only the stories we tell.”