THE NATIONAL BOOK TOUR for “The Water Dancer,” the first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, will kick off at the Apollo Theater on September 23. Coates, who testified before Congress two weeks ago about reparations for African Americans, will serve as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Harlem theater.
“Coates is an artist changing the landscape of American culture. As a performing arts space squarely focused on commissioning and presenting work that centers on African American voices, it was a natural fit for the Apollo to offer him a home for his work and ideas,” Apollo Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, said in a statement when the news was announced yesterday.
“The Water Dancer,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World, 432 pages). | Forthcoming Sept. 24, 2019
“The Water Dancer” probes the emotional toll of the separation of families during slavery through the story of Hiram Walker, a young man born into bondage in Virginia. The book’s cover is illustrated by Los Angeles-based artist Calida Garcia Rawles.
Featuring Coates and a special guest to be announced, the program for the new novel will launch a three-year initiative. The author is collaborating with the Apollo on a series of events at the historic theater and the nonprofit’s new adjacent space in the Victoria Theater, beginning in fall 2020.
A distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Coates is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. He gained national recognition following the publication of “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine in June 2014. The article brought new attention to the stark, generational costs of slavery and legal discrimination and the debt owed to black Americans. On June 19, Juneteenth, Coates testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of H.R. 40, legislation that calls for establishing a commission to study reparations.
His forthcoming novel follows the publication of his critically acclaimed book “Between the World and Me” (2015), a letter to his son about being black in America. Coates confronts the grand ideals and fraught history of the United States and examines the burdens that cultural legacy has placed on black men and boys. Topping The New York Times bestseller list, “Between the World and Me” won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.
“Coates is an artist changing the landscape of American culture. As a performing arts space squarely focused on commissioning and presenting work that centers on African American voices, it was a natural fit for the Apollo to offer him a home for his work and ideas.” — Apollo Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes
THE COVER OF “THE WATER DANCER” features a painting by Rawles. The image of a man floating just below the surface of the water captures a major plot point in the forthcoming novel.
Coates visited the artist’s studio in 2017 and was struck by her photo-realistic paintings of black men, women, and children floating, swimming, and submerged in pools. He hadn’t finished the novel yet, but the story was sufficiently developed that he knew water would play a pivotal role thematically. According to The New York Times, Coates asked Rawles if she would read the work in progress and make an image for the cover.
She delivered “Water Dancer #1,” which depicts a black man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, floating face down in water. His long arms are stretched out above his head. The water, rendered in a deep sea blue, shows subtle movement and rippling around his body. In the book, the protagonist nearly drowns in a river.
Coates was incredibly moved by the image Rawles created. “I wanted to cry,” he told the Times. Seeing a visual interpretation of his work, made the novel feel real. It “started to feel really alive to me,” he said.
RAWLES EARNED A B.A. degree in art from Spelman College and has an M.A. degree in painting from NYU. Her work explores the intersection of race and gender. In a statement on her website, Rawles explains the lens through which she has considered the symbolism of water:
In her most recent work, that exploration has meant going to the water. For Rawles water is a marker of life, of growth and discovery. However, she recognizes it has a complex connection to racial exclusion, cultural fears, as well as, being a nostalgic place of leisure and play. Water was the medium that conducted black people into slavery. The swimming pools of the Jim Crow South, were transformed into battle-fields during the Civil Rights movement.
She produced a suite of six acrylic on canvas paintings in her “Water Dancer” series (2018) including “Water Dancer #1, the cover painting.
“Water was the medium that conducted black people into slavery. The swimming pools of the Jim Crow South, were transformed into battle-fields during the Civil Rights movement.” — Artist Calida Garcia Rawles
COATES’S TENURE as an artist-in-residence at the Apollo Theater makes his engagement with the organization official. The author has previously turned to the world famous theater to host major events and discussions.
Three events were held in 2018. The Apollo worked with Coates to present a stage performance of “Between the World and Me.” The author held a discussion with actors Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o about the influence and global impact of the film “Black Panther.” and was also in conversation with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones about “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” his collection of essays analyzing the presidency of Barack Obama.
When his residency was announced, Coates said: “I am looking forward to deepening my relationship with one of the most important cultural spaces deeply committed to African American arts and ideas.” CT
FIND MORE about Calida Garcia Rawles on her website
WATCH Ta-Nehisi Coates read his opening statement before Congressional hearing on reparations
READ MORE about the Congressional testimony of Ta-Nehisi Coates (transcript)
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of the critically acclaimed “Between the World and Me.” His books also include “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” and “The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir.” For Marvel Comics, Coates has written volumes for Black Panther and Captain America. “The Water Dancer,” his first novel, is forthcoming in September.
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