Growing up in Maryland, author Ta-Nehisi Coates was enthralled by stories of Harriet Tubman, the 19th century abolitionist who operated the Underground Railroad on the state’s Eastern Shore. He read about Tubman’s efforts to lead enslaved people to freedom, and was struck by the surreal qualities of her story.
“It just seemed wild,” he says. “Who is this person who has fainting spells and yet has never lost a passenger? Who is this black woman in the 19th century who, when somebody is scared and wants to turn back pulls out a gun and made threats, ‘You ain’t turning back!’? Who is this person who just strides through history?”
Coates read one biography of Tubman in which the biographer admitted that historians aren’t quite sure how she managed to lead so many people to freedom. “Whenever I hear, ‘We don’t know how this happens,’ my mind starts turning, you know? I start imagining things,” he says.
Coates had always been a fan of comic books and pulpy adventure stories, and he began to imagine the Underground Railroad through fantastical eyes. His debut novel, The Water Dancer, is set in slave times and centers on Hiram, a man born into slavery who meets Tubman, and learns that they share a magical power to teleport enslaved people to freedom.
“I did a considerable amount of research, and when you look at how African Americans described themselves during that period, and when you look at how they talk about their own escapes from slavery, magic is often very much a part [of it],” he says. “The Water Dancer … tries to take a somewhat forgotten tradition in African American resistance and render it seriously.”
Photo: Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times