Colson Whitehead holds an unforgiving mirror to the American experiment in ‘The Nickel Boys’ 

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The Dozier School for Boys was founded in 1900 in Marianna, Florida. In its 111 years of operation, the residential center for high-risk youth survived state investigations and congressional hearings — even though they exposed the institution’s practices of extreme brutality, neglect and even murder. In 2014, archaeology professors and students at the University of South Florida uncovered the bodies of more than 55 boys, many of whom were raped and mutilated. They expect that there are still more undiscovered. 

Colson Whitehead, the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his brilliant epic “The Underground Railroad,” came upon the history of Dozier in 2014. His horrified curiosity developed into what would be his seventh novel, “The Nickel Boys” — a fictionalized account of this state-sanctioned house of terror. 

The novel’s school of torture is the fictional Nickel Academy in Eleanor, Florida. Here, we begin with the school’s excavation in the present day, where the townspeople agree that the highly segregated institution was a standing testament to the racism, abuse and injustice in the foundations of this nation. Its destruction and erasure from history, they concur, is long overdue. 

This, Whitehead implies in his deadpan prologue, is the story of America — a halfhearted attempt to acknowledge the country’s foundational crimes against Black and brown bodies before erasing those stories and celebrating how far we’ve come.

The novel can be read as a historical and stylistic companion to “The Underground Railroad,” which follows Cora, an American slave escaping on a literal underground railroad. A few generational jumps ahead, and now, in “The Nickel Boys,” we are hinged to Elwood Curtis, a Black Tallahassee teen in the 1960s. Elwood’s family history fosters the generational epic: One of his grandfathers was killed in a bar fight against white men, and the other died in jail after a white woman insisted on his imprisonment. His father, a soldier in World War II, was broken not by war but by his return, because “it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.” 

Whitehead makes it obvious — the inherent and systematic racism of Elwood’s family history represents its entrenchment in the history of the nation at large. But Elwood, raised by his grandmother on records of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and having lived the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, vows to surpass the boundaries imposed on him when he was born Black in the United States. Despite the racial epithets carved into his hand-me-down textbooks, he is a born student, motivated by his books and revolutionary teachers with the idea that his story will not be the same as that of his ancestors.

Before he even finishes high school, however, Elwood is sent to Nickel after being arrested while hitchhiking in a stolen car. The other “students” have similar stories: “I got busted for sleeping in a garage to keep warm. I stole five dollars from my teacher.” At Nickel, Elwood vows to toe the line and be the fastest student to graduate. But after being brutally beaten by the staff for intervening in a fight, he soon realizes that that is not how Nickel works. 

As in “The Underground Railroad,” Whitehead doesn’t shy away from violence. He lavishes in its ugliness, and his characters and the reader suffer through it together. Though difficult to read at times, the physical brutality of Elwood’s beating and the disgusting ideologies of the Nickel staff underscore Whitehead’s task of complete disclosure. This was an ugly time in American history that cannot be glossed over. 

Despite the brutality he endures, Elwood tries to believe in justice as “set in movement by a woman sitting down on a bus where she was told not to sit.” But even if his narrator doesn’t, Whitehead recognizes the inherent privilege in this narrative. Another student, Turner, removes these blinders, pointing out that while tie-wearing students sat at diner counters, he was working. Besides, “Turner didn’t have the money to eat there anyway.” 

As the novel seamlessly slides back and forth in time, we watch Elwood, and Whitehead too, grapple with Dr. King’s ideology of peace: “Beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you.” “What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing,” Elwood indignantly responds.

The novel is propelled by a crucial mission. Whitehead uses his epic storytelling brilliance to remind us once again of this story — “the boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place.” Nickel isn’t unique. Dozier wasn’t the only one. El Paso houses different but just as repulsive houses of horrors in the present day. In another heart-wrenching epic, Whitehead produces a reckoning with America’s historical amnesia. 

We have heard these stories before — why do they have so little effect on the American consciousness? Whitehead doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he leaves us uncomfortable, forced to look for answers not in his pages, but in our own lives.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that one of Elwood’s great grandfathers was killed in a bar fight. In fact, it was his grandfather