The Water Dancer: Ta-Nehisi Coates Joined Oprah in Conversation at the Apollo—and We Were There

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Oprah Winfrey at the World Famous Apollo Theater on the occasion of the launch of Coates’s first novel, The Water Dancer, Sept. 23, 2019.
Photo: Shahar Azran Photography

It was an amazingly candid conversation, punctuated with lots of laughter, black-ass intonations, and responses from the crowd.

“I love a talking back audience,” Oprah said, as she and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates presented a salon of sorts at the venerable Apollo Theater last week. The packed audience (which included this writer) was privy to a deeply revealing dialogue that ran the gamut from Coates’ love of comics, to our painful history as mythology, to Toni Morrison, to why more of us should visit plantations, to writing as a process, to reparations.

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During the almost hour-long conversation, Coates revealed that his first novel, The Water Dancer, which was chosen to relaunch Winfrey’s book club with Apple TV+, took 10 years to write. He divulged that he scrapped an entire draft, save three paragraphs, after his trusted editor said he wasn’t on point, and admitted that “it’s really hard to write a novel.”

“The Water Dancer is the story of Hiram Walker who is an enslaved African American in antebellum Virginia. His father is a white slaveholder in the plantation Lockless where he lives, his mother has been sold off by his father,” Coates explained of his fantastical, historical tale.

“Hiram has a preternatural gift of memory, a photographic memory, except when it comes to the things that are most important to him, most intimate to him, starting with his mother,” he continued. “The book traces Hiram Walker’s attempt [to escape], his voyage towards freedom and his coming to (pronounced “tew,” because Coates is so Baltimore) acceptance that freedom is much more than he thought. That it goes past his individual freedom; that it has to embrace the community that he was raised in.”

Winfrey said Coates’ novel “pierced” her, and was most impressed by how he was able to capture the inner lives of those in bondage (known as the “Tasked” in Coates’ novel). The celebrated essayist likened his process to that of an actor preparing for a role.

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“So you study, you read and you research enough until you feel like it’s pouring out of you … it’s not artificial anymore,” he said. “You actually can feel yourself there and you have the mannerisms and you have the words, and you’re not thinking about it—it becomes like second sense or muscle memory for you to write in that way. I tried to get to that point where I’m no longer thinking, where I can sit down and if you woke me up at 2 a.m., and asked me, ’Ok, give me 500 words on what Hiram did today’, I could do it. That’s what I tried to get to.”

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Coates said he also summoned his muse through language.

“I’m a language person,” he explained. “Which means, literally the arrangement of words hold meaning for me. So it might not be what someone is saying but the way that they say it. I read a ton of 19th-century writing, particularly by enslaved folks. People in other centuries don’t talk like we talk today. So within that language, there’s a reality...and I was trying to put you in a very particular place. So it really was that research that did it for me, reading those folks.”

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The 44-year-old author also visited the sites of slavery, including the “grand” plantations of the South, to research the novel, including the palatial Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, a study in cognitive dissonance.

“Here is this place where for years—not lately—but for years, we have talked about architecture, and the genius of Jefferson, and there are wine tastings there and there are weddings there and there are kids running all over the place. But if you’re black and you have any sort of political consciousness at all, what you quickly realize that this was a concentration camp. You can immediately feel it.

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“There’s a disconnect between the public face, the presentation. You’re at your Dachau and this is presented as some great American monument,” Coates added.

However, the author was adamant that the book would not have been possible without the historians and archaeologists at Monticello. Jefferson, in fact, helped Coates deepen his understanding of the peculiar institution and the division between reality and the ideals espoused by one of America’s greatest founding fathers, a man who literally was able to live the grand life on the backs of hundreds of people, most of whom were sold after he died in debt.

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“I didn’t understand it on that level,” Coates continued. “I knew about [Jefferson’s “mistress,” enslaved teen] Sally [Hemmings] and I knew Jefferson was a slaveholder, right? But I didn’t understand, for instance, the great beautiful columns at Monticello were actually carved by black hands. And the genius behind that—(“Who hadn’t been to a math class,” Oprah interjected)—the genius behind those columns was such that when they try to figure out today how they had done it, the archaeologists down there still don’t know.

“To me, it countered the notion that we so often think in slavery just about the body. But in fact, Jefferson [was] living off these folks’ genius, too.”

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Winfrey also gushed about Coates’ character, Sophia (no relation to the character she made famous in The Color Purple), saying that the character was given one of the best lines she’d ever read, on approximately page 345 of The Water Dancer:

“You want me to be yours. I understand. I’ve always understood it. But what you must get is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours. Do you understand what I’m saying? I must never be any man’s.”

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“I did write that!,” replied Coates.

“You did write that! So what was going on? Where? How?” Winfrey asked, incredulously.

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“I’m just going to be real with you. It was not without its challenges,” said Coates. “It’s not like [the women around me] read it and were like, ‘You got it, you’re fine. Everything is great.’”

Coates explained that in one draft, he wrote Hiram as a 19th-century character with 19th-century ideas about women, but that writing it that way was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, one of his people told him, “Dude, it’s fiction. You’re not writing a journalistic article, this isn’t a biography of a real dude named Hiram Walker. It’s fiction.” Coates said that freed him to flesh out the inner life of this woman, who was Hiram’s love interest.

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Sophia, said Coates, is a “particular” kind of woman.

“I don’t want to say ‘independent’—that’s so cliche; she had her own hopes, her own dreams, her own objectives, and her own ideas of what her life should be...And she’s in a situation where she is forced in servitude to give up her body to this white man, and Hiram is proposing freedom. And knowing Sophia as I came to know her, it seemed absurd. And although I did write that, it didn’t come until the last draft. It seemed absurd that she would want to then give of herself in the same way to a black man. It’s not that she don’t like him; she does. But she wants something different. She wants something more, you know?”

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Winfrey also called out another passage:

“I marvel at the bonds between us, the way we shorten our words, or spoke sometimes with no words at all. The shared memories of the corn-shucking; of hurricanes; of heroes; they did not live in books but in our talk. An entire world of our own hidden away from them. And to be part of this world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret; a secret that was in you.”

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She then asked if Coates was trying to reveal that secret.

“That particular passage refers to something I’ve tried to work with throughout my writing,” he replied. “[T]hat is there is a part of being black in America that we would all part with and give up. And that is the fact of being a black race; being put into a black race and having to deal with all the things that come with that. But the cultural part, we’re not giving the greens up. Don’t want to give that back. We don’t want to give Marvin Gaye back. We’re not doing that. And so, Hiram was enslaved and even he can recognize ‘there are things that I love about this.’ As much as [he’s] yearning for freedom, he would never want to be free of this particular thing.

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“I think when you say the words “slavery” images instantly come to mind,” Coates continued. “People think of whips, they think of chains, they think of torture and what you have to do as a writer—particularly as a fiction writer—is not just write a novel where the setting is slavery, but it’s your slavery, by which I mean that it could only come from your particular mind or vision...And so, part of that is vocabulary. Part of that is naming things.”

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“Well, the truth is, history is never really past unless we actually reckon with it, and in all of your work it’s really clear that you are dealing with this reckoning or lack of reckoning that we never had,” said Winfrey. “Do you think this book will move the discussion forward? (long pause) For people to see it differently?”

“I’ll tell you this: If being on CBS This Morning to talk about a first novel doesn’t do it; If having a billboard in Times Square doesn’t do it; if having the might of Apple behind you,” Coates began. “You have to understand, first novels never get this. I cannot stress to you how unusual this is. If that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what is. I tried to write the hell outta the book and I feel like you guys are promoting the hell outta the book, and so if you get those two things together...The answer is Yes. Yes, I do think so, I do think so. Yes.”

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Oprah Winfrey will have another conversation with Coates on The Water Dancer Nov. 1 at Apple TV+. The schedule for Coates’ national book tour is on his website.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.