The Nickel Boys: a ruthlessly realistic exploration of racism and abuse

Colson Whitehead’s new novel is a spare and unsparing of a black child’s school experience in 1960s Florida.

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In 2011, the Florida School for Boys, once the US’s largest reform institution for juvenile offenders, closed after more than a century. For decades there had been allegations of terrible abuse at the Arthur G Dozier School, as it was also known, and the large number of unmarked graves in the school grounds led to a forensic survey; in all, nearly 100 boys had died while in the school’s custody. Remains showed signs of torture, bones burst with buckshot; there were rumours of six-year-olds chained to walls and a room the boys called “the rape room”. Until 1968 the school was racially segregated and there were reportedly separate rooms for beating white boys and black boys. A survivors’ group formed and its members, most of whom have been white, began speaking out. “Who spoke for the black boys?” a character wonders in The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, based on the story of the Dozier School. “It was time someone did.”

That’s just what Whitehead has done in a story that is both spare and unsparing. Markedly different in style from his last novel, The Underground Railroad, a fantastical, visionary pastiche of the American slave narrative, The Nickel Boys is ruthlessly realistic; but it, too, seeks to defamiliarise a familiar story. In the early 1960s, an upstanding black student in Florida named Elwood Curtis believes that by following the meritocratic rules he can escape the iniquities of black life in America. Raised by a strict but loving grandmother, he is permitted to listen only to one record, a scratchy recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches. ‘‘We must believe in our souls that we are somebody…’’ King teaches him, ‘‘and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.’’ Inevitably, the American South responds by teaching Elwood that racial injustice turns a black boy into nobody.

On his way to classes at a local college, Elwood hitches a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car, and is sent to the Nickel School. Whitehead skips entirely over his arrest and trial, underscoring the brutal foregone conclusion: of course such a boy, in such circumstances, would be incarcerated – why bother going through the motions of a trial? At Nickel, Elwood learns the hard way that rules have no meaning in a world of pure power. The only rule is keep your head down and avoid notice – or so he is told by his new friend, Turner, who has survived on the streets and speaks for realpolitik. Eventually their two moral philosophies – idealism versus survivalism – come head to head as Elwood tries to fight for justice in a game Turner knows is rigged.

Whitehead’s depiction of the boys’ experiences at Nickel is steeped in vicious fact. But the cruelty is mostly kept off the page: he does not linger pruriently on the sadism or torture. Part of the evil, in Whitehead’s conception, is the sychological abuse of learned helplessness and numbed acquiescence. Elwood thinks of “those Negroes Dr King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed”. 

The crime against these boys was not simply that their potential was destroyed. “They had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” Barely more than 200 pages, The Nickel Boys encapsulates much of the brutality and injustice of Jim Crow America in a tale so archetypal it is nearly allegorical. Whitehead moves in and out of time periods and shifts between his two main characters, Elwood and Turner, suggesting a much wider historical sweep than this concise tale actually encompasses. Nickel is representative, not unique: “This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories,” Elwood thinks.

Those “pain factories” are not only reform schools, but penitentiaries as well, many of which were built directly upon the grounds of old slave plantations, and proceeded systematically to re-incarcerate the population that had theoretically been emancipated. Like Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing – which won the US National Book Award the year after Whitehead – The Nickel Boys is also directly confronting America’s carceral system and its restitution of slavery in all but name. Southern state penitentiaries even retain their old plantation names locally: the Louisiana State Penitentiary is still called Angola, while the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which inspired Ward’s novel, is known as Parchman.

“The fact of Negro slavery went to the moral heart of the American social drama,” Ralph Ellison once wrote, and The Nickel Boys offers a tribute to Ellison, one of Whitehead’s greatest influences, in a climactic boxing match – fixed, of course – that tips its hat to the iconic Battle Royal scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Whitehead quotes King at length, as well as James Baldwin, both of whom wrestled with the conflict between collective history and individual agency, exposing the realities of racial injustice while working to transcend it.

The Dozier School was in Marianna, in the Florida Panhandle, the site of the lynching of Claude Neal in 1934, one of the last “spectacle lynchings” in US history. Accused of raping and murdering a white woman, Neal was arrested and moved around the Panhandle to avoid growing lynch mobs. He was taken to Panama City, but eventually returned to Marianna, where he was tortured, castrated, burned and shot. Photos were taken as souvenirs; so were Neal’s fingers and toes. The remainder of his body was displayed on the steps of the Marianna courthouse – about two miles away from the Dozier School.

Panama City, where Neal was fleetingly imprisoned en route to this barbaric ordeal, is the place where Donald Trump held a rally this May, asking the crowd “how do you stop these people” from coming over the Mexican border. When a crowd member shouted, “Shoot them!” Trump chuckled and remarked, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.” At the Dozier School, there was a building known as the “White House,” where, in a vicious perversion of democratic equality, black boys and white boys were equally beaten. Whitehead retains the name for the torture chamber at his fictional school: sometimes reality provides its own symbols. 

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead
Fleet, 224pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special