Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel transports us to antebellum Virginia, when the tobacco wealth of years gone by is dwindling, due to soil exhaustion. He introduces us to the world of the ‘Quality’ (slave owners) and that of the ‘Tasked’ (the enslaved), in which slave-owning is framed as a Lacanian failure on the part of the slaveholder: ‘They did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power.’
The Water Dancer
centres on Hiram Walker, a slave whose mother was long ago sold on and whose father is the plantation owner. Hiram gets involved with the Underground (Railroad, though it goes by plain ‘Underground’ here), forging freedom papers and planning slave rescues. He is recruited by Corrine Quinn, a white woman who, when her family wanted her educated only to the point of eligibility or ‘ornamental ignorance’, fell in with the abolitionists and, upon her parents’ death, turned the family seat over to an Underground station.