In his 2014 essay ‘The Case for Reparations’, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that compensating black Americans for the injustices of slavery ‘would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history’. In his debut novel, The Water Dancer, the kind of national awakening Coates imagines for his country is allegorised through the story of Hiram, a young man born into slavery in the 19th century on a Virginia tobacco plantation, rather unsuitably named Lockless. His father is the plantation owner while his mother, a slave, was sold away from Lockless when Hiram was a boy. Despite the fact that Hiram is a ‘strange child’ with exceptional powers of memory, he is unable to remember anything about her – a fact that becomes crucial when he discovers he is capable of conduction, a magical power that allows him to teleport himself across large distances. As Hiram flees Lockless and joins the Underground, a network of abolitionists working to liberate slaves across the country, he begins to realise that to master conduction he must excavate the memory of his mother. Just as, in Coates’s view, America must remember its history in order to escape slavery’s legacy, so too must Hiram remember his childhood if he is to eventually free his fellow slaves from Lockless.
As well as being a staff writer at The Atlantic, Coates has received a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant’ and a National Book Award. He has also been producing a new series of Black Panther comics for Marvel. His memoir Between the World and Me (2015) and his essay collection We