Colson Whitehead is one of the best authors on race in America. He has particular skill in taking the racial history of this country and weaving his literary characters around them – characters that are reactive to the bigotry of the period and who leave a legacy of resistance in the face of hate and discrimination. His most recent work, The Nickel Boys, is a fictionalized tale loosely based on tragic real-life events at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Nominally a biracial reform school, the institution is instead more corrupt than the worst of its captives, resorting to beatings, extortion, and mass murder as a means of pleasure (and a way to enforce the strict enforcement that allows the enrichment of politicians and the heads of the school.) Although in many respects the white boys and black boys are treated very similarly, the worst of the abuse is reserved for the segregated black boys that lie at the center of Whitehead’s story.
The prologue introduces us to the corrupt nature of the Nickel Academy (the Dozier Academy mentioned above) and foreshadows the ominous future that awaits the boys sentenced to the reform school. A mass grave is discovered by a 21st-century construction crew and we are shown glimpses of the troubling world of 1950’s and 1960’s Nickel reform, full of secret graveyards, beating houses, and get-rich schemes. This discovery temporarily interrupts construction of a not-important building, prompting Whitehead to remark that “even in death the boys were in trouble.” The graveyard was a finally validation to claims that had been aired by survivors of Nickel for a half-century. Yet, highlighting the powerlessness of supposed “troubled black youth”, Whitehead writes that “no one believed them until someone else said it.”
From there, the book follows main character Elwood and reads like a part fictional memoir/part overview of African-American history and culture – Elwood’s early life is littered with segregation, civil rights, and, contradictorily, a directive (from his grandmother, Harriet) to stay in his lane. He was a third-generation worker at the Richmond Hotel, although we learn his mother and father deserted him and moved to California, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. In the midst of his time at Nickel, we are given some context to Elwood’s family life, especially the restrained behavior of his grandmother. We find out that the unfortunate circumstances which have levelled Elwood’s optimism have plagued generation after generation of black men in his family, demonstrating that Elwood’s future situation is not a simple case of “wrong place at the wrong time” but an example of systematic racism against blacks in most facets of life, from criminal justice, to housing, to government assistance.
Despite the prodding from Harriet, Whitehead creates an idealistic Elwood character, one who seemed to live by his own set of moral conduct, a genuine belief in morality regardless of personal consequences. As a reader, this was sometimes hard to believe, but serves well to highlight the amount of systemic racism in place – to this writer it reminded me of the adage a black person must work twice as hard to get half as far. Even Elwood’s superior intellect and rationale cannot save him from a corrupt system of oppression that only sees color, not character. Whitehead ties Elwood closely with MLK, modeling Elwood’s defining mindset from a quote from King at Zion Hill – “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of every life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Elwood never seems to grasp that others in the school may have had a promising future just like him – through his vision (as the new kid) they others all seem hardened by the school they lived.
Pre-Nickel Academy Elwood seems to grow with the Civil Rights Movement, at first hearing about and then participating in marches, sit-ins, and boycotts synonymous with the era. Whitehead fools the reader a bit here – we know the noble Elwood winds up in reform school and it was easy to picture the march he takes part in as the beginning of his delinquency. Instead, a long line of morally-correct-yet-individually-disastrous decisions lead him on a disadvantageous path – one that winds up with him hitchhiking in a car on the way to college. Predictably, he runs into trouble with the white law enforcement on a southern road, upending the promising future Whitehead painted for him.
Once Elwood is at Nickel, Whitehead builds the tension by narrating things that Elwood notices. Scars on other boys. Hunting dogs. Graveyards. A White House that no one goes near voluntarily. All throughout, the men in charge of Nickel seem to be convinced they are the moral saviors of wandering youth. There is an arbitrary ranking system at Nickel, one in which you can win your freedom by rising four levels by deeds and acts deemed virtuous. The “students” (Nickel portrays itself as a school, remember) are separated into dorms, their lives largely dictated by superiors who students attempt to avoid at all costs.
Elwood at first sees Nickel as a simple setback – he will do all he can to achieve everything at Nickel as fast as he can. He is not like these boys, he reasons. He is virtuous and industrious, capable of more than most if he simply followed the moral principles that guided his life – and supposedly guide the institution. Unfortunately, his righteous behavior again is punished, this time with a trip to the White House – the name of a place for midnight beatings and punishments. The final portions of the book bounce us back and forth from the rest of Elwood’s time at the Academy to a post-graduate Elwood living in New York. The tension mounts as we realize that most, but not all, of Elwood’s pre-Nickel aspirations have dissipated (for instance, he has no college education but rather has just received his GED), his moralistic inclinations have been mitigated, and his general outlook is much more pessimistic than the character from the middle passages of the book. In one portion Whitehead narrates his character thinking he had “outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact, he had been ruined. He was like one 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.” This is in direct contradiction to the “somebody-ness” King and Elwood had strove for in the beginning of the book. We know something drastic has happened; it is not until Whitehead revealed the final weeks of Elwood’s time at the academy that the reader realizes that the events were worse than they probably imagined.