Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ryan Coogler Discuss 'The Water Dancer' and Slavery's Emotional Trauma

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"I never saw a work that was so razor-sharp on emotion," the 'Black Panther' director said of the author's debut novel.

Best known for his political journalism career and nonfiction titles like Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has spent the last 10 years working on his first novel, The Water Dancer. The story follows Hiram Walker, a young slave living on a Virginia plantation who uses mystical powers to connect with his long-lost mother and find his path toward freedom.

"I was thinking a lot about slavery and a lot about the Civil War...and I became captivated," Coates said Thursday at West Angeles Cathedral in Los Angele's historic Crenshaw district while discussing the inspiration for his novel, which released Sept. 24. The event, part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles' ALOUD series, was a conversation with Black Panther director Ryan Coogler. 

"This was a war about slavery. There is no excuse. There's no ifs, ands, buts about it. No states' rights, no taxes or tariffs," Coates continued as the audience audibly agreed and applauded. He continued with his fascination that despite the horrors of slavery, myths and symbols of the Civil War are "awarded to the people who have done really, really horrible things."  

Coates noted pop culture fixations such as The Dukes of Hazzard, which featured a 1969 Dodge Charger named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee with a Confederate battle flag painted on the roof, or the fact that the state of Tennessee celebrates Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, despite him being a slave trader and onetime leader of the Ku Klux Klan. "If I say the Civil War is about slavery," Coates shared, "I have to look at everything different now."

When asked by Coogler when the National Book Award-winning author really felt "he had something" while crafting The Water Dancer, Coates revealed that, despite having worked on it for a decade, that moment didn't come until "probably a year ago." 

"One of the big themes of the book is memory," Coates said. "Memories are very poignant in the book.... I didn't come up with the memory thing about his mother until last year." 

The Water Dancer's protagonist Hiram Walker possesses a photographic memory but the one person he cannot remember is his own mother, who is sold away by his slave trader father. 

Coogler noted that while reading the novel, "the part that is the toughest to see" was the mental anguish felt amongst enslaved people (called "the Tasked" in Coates' work), including Hiram who grapples with guilt for not being able to save his mother. "I had this book for a long time and I just finished it today...what I wasn't ready for was the type of violence — it's emotional, not physical," Coogler said. "I never saw a work that was so razor-sharp on emotion."

Coates thanked Coogler for that insight, sharing that for Hiram, the only way he could live through his guilt was to bury the memory of his mother and only remember her "in words." "He knows he had a mother, but he can't conjure the image," Coates said. "When I thought of him burying his mother in his mind...he's burying doubts, maybe because he could have saved his mother and he's ashamed."

In Coates' 2014 piece for The Atlantic titled "The Case for Reparations," he wrote, "until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." While that article focused on the aftermath of slavery in terms of institutional racism and housing discrimination, The Water Dancer is Coates' achievement of depicting the emotional trauma of slavery.

"If I were to ask white people what are the things you think of with slavery, it's whips, violence, rape," Coates said. "As bad as the whips were, as bad as the chains were, as bad as rape was — and it was — what got me mad and what I felt was the destruction of family. If you were a slave and someone sells your kids, that's as good as killing them.... That got to me."

When searching for a few words to encapsulate The Water Dancer, Coates shared with Coogler and the audience, "It's not what they did to us. It's what we did. That's what the book is about — it's what we did."