The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

By Miriam R. Kramer

Two years ago Whitehead authored The Underground Railroad, a retelling of history in which the passage north for African-American slaves was a real railroad. In plumbing our racial history, he created a symbolic work with surrealist touches reminiscent of William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison. Winning the 2017 Pulitzer and National Book Awards for this novel, Whitehead untangled and rewrote one thread of the malignant history of racism in America. The Nickel Boys tells a similar but more realistic tale, relating the story of two Black boys sent to a reform school in Northern Florida in the early 1960s.

One, Elwood Curtis, is an idealist, a straight-A student who worships the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and believes in the possibility of eventual equality between the races. Another, Jack Turner, is a cynic who has had to bounce from member to member of his family, taking odd jobs to survive. When arrested by the police, Elwood is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Turner has dropped his usual detachment and rebelled by throwing a cinder block through a white customer’s car window.

According to its mission statement, their destination, the Nickel Academy, a segregated juvenile reformatory, provides “physical, intellectual, and moral training” so that its “pupils” can become men with integrity and honor. In reality it might as well have the words Arbeit Macht Frei nailed above the front door. Reformatories, concentration camps, and for-profit penitentiaries have long delighted in lofty, absurd proclamations that bear no resemblance to such institutions’ effects on the human beings contained within.

After Elwood arrives, he naively applies his ideals to conditions within the system. Standing up for a black inmate who is being bullied, he falls victim to Superintendent Maynard Spencer, the very picture of a twentieth-century slave overseer. In the middle of the night Spencer takes him and others involved to The White House, an innocuous-looking building in which they are whipped until they cannot stand up. Elwood is whipped until he has to go to the school infirmary, where the resident doctor gives him some aspirin and then leaves him alone. There Elwood gets to know Turner, a cool-cat observer and survivor who might be able to help him adapt, at least superficially, to the degradation that permeates his world.

As Colson Whitehead has mentioned in an interview, the two characters of Elwood and Turner represent, in some respects, his own divergent views rubbing up against each other. The Nickel Boys is a much less symbolic and more lightly fictionalized story about institutionalized racism than The Underground Railroad, although it too describes a kind of slavery.  Whitehead based his fictional Nickel Academy on a real institution, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys outside of Tallahassee, Florida, which began operating in the late nineteenth century and only closed in 2011. It gained attention when commercial developers discovered an unmarked burial ground, one where boys who had supposedly “run away” ended up when they disobeyed their overlords. Whitehead’s words shine a harsh spotlight on it, one that leaves shadows as long as the ones darkening its inhabitants’ psyches.

This fictional boys’ reformatory, like its real role model, proves a self-propagating, money-making machine. Its inmates, some of whom are orphans and others who committed no crime except to fall into the machinery of the state foster care bureaucracy, plant vegetables, make bricks, and run a printing press that does all its publishing for the government. The machinery grinds on for years, using boys as grist for the profit-making mill.

While called “students,” the boys learn little to nothing in school, with many unable to read into their teens. Obedience and acceptance of school norms and projects help more towards ensuring eventual release than scholastic progress. White boys receive better food if not better living conditions than blacks. Some of the food bought by the state for the black boys is sold off to local restaurants and businesses, making the nearby community of Eleanor, Florida complicit in providing kickbacks to the Nickel Academy’s director. When boys perform “community service” for local residents, the school’s administrators benefit financially.

As he navigates Nickel, Elwood Curtis must find a way to either discard or reconcile his innate compulsion to follow Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings. How can he maintain dignity in the face of ultimate degradation? Must he love his enemies? Can he summon the moral courage to rebel peacefully? Is it sufficient to survive within the system without demanding more? If so, is that really survival? In systematically writing down the injustices he sees, he can at least bear witness to the sexual predation, corruption, and grift around him. Turner tries to help him cope and lay low without understanding quite how Elwood’s idealism has quietly begun to infuse his own vision.

In penning this work, Whitehead himself bears witness to those boys who lived through and limped out of the real-life Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, an institution that belied its so-called purpose and strove to beat the humanity out of them for over a hundred years. For the reader, seeing a precious friendship between Elwood and Turner root and bloom in a dark place, changing their respective fates, makes The Nickel Boys worth reading.

Luckily, Whitehead’s terse, beautiful prose makes this book the most unlikely of page-turners, a speed-read that dishes up hard truths and terrible history. His subtle writing reveals Elwood and Turner’s humanity and capacity for love, carrying you like a current through their pain and redemption while sparing you none of it.

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