I was there. In a sold-out house at the Apollo Theater that was filled with (mostly) Black and Brown faces and it was glorious.
That was Sept. 23, 2019, which was set aside to honor the celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates in a sit-down with living legend Oprah Winfrey who interviewed him as part of the Apollo Theater’s inaugural Master Artist-in-Residence.
Known for his work as a political journalist and for his nonfiction works like “Between the World and Me,” Coates spent 10 years working on “The Water Dancer.” The almost hour-long conversation felt like minutes and he shared that his first novel, which was chosen to relaunch Winfrey’s book club with Apple TV+, took 10 years to write.
“Apple has a billion pockets, y’all,” teased Winfrey. “A billion pockets.”
Coates confessed that he had to discard his entire first draft. All that remains of it are three paragraphs. His confession is both humbling and inspiring. He trusted his editor and said he flat out told Coates that the work 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 mystical, historical tale.
Think about it. We as Black and Brown people have a deep and personal connection with the supernatural. We are not afraid to embrace something bigger than ourselves. Coates’ books tap into that inherited DNA.
“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 toward 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.”
From the start of the conversation, Winfrey made it clear that Coates’ novel “pierced” her, often hugging the book to her bosom. There were many things that impressed her about the book but she highlighted his ability to capture the inner lives of those in bondage (known as the “Tasked” in Coates’ novel). How he got to the depth of the characters was a question she asked a few times. Coates likened his process to that of an actor preparing for a role. “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.”
History wants to erase our contributions but we were more than mere beasts of burden and the white slave owners stole much more than our lives. They dared to step into our minds. Coates agreed adding: “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.”
“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.”
As the evening begun to wind down, Coates took a moment to look around the packed house. He was not acting humble. He was humbled. To wit he went back to how his first novel, “The Water Dancer,” almost didn’t make it. Stating again for the audience that only three paragraphs from the first draft remain. He brought his hard work home. He had to go back. He had to humble himself and he did.
“First novels never get this,” Coates said about the promotion surrounding the book. “I cannot stress to you how unusual this is.”
“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.”
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.