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Colson Whitehead’s “Nickel Boys” Spotlights Systemic Racism

As Reviewed by Amy Kellestine

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If the heartbreaking but important story he shares in “The Nickel Boys” is any indication, acclaimed author Colson Whitehead has no intention of dying. In his previous novel, “The Underground Railroad”, Whitehead used the railroad as a metaphor to illustrate the horrors of slavery. This time around, there is no metaphor, just the brutal truth of the obstacles young black men face in a system that sees them as subhuman.

Elwood Curtis is growing up during the time of Brown vs. Board of Education in the Jim Crow South, listening to Dr. King’s speeches and taking his own first tentative steps as an activist in his community. Raised by his loving but strict grandmother, Elwood is a rule follower and a scholar, the kind of kid you’d be happy for your kids to hang around with as his goodness might rub off on them. However, just as Elwood is poised to start college, his future is ripped out of his hands when he hitches a ride to classes in a car he doesn’t realize is stolen.

He finds himself incarcerated at the Nickel Academy, touted as a juvenile reform institution that offers “physical, intellectual, and moral training” to transform the boys in their care into “honorable and honest men.” Elwood initially believes his stay might not be so bad. However, he quickly learns that the Nickel Academy is more like prison (think “Shawshank Redemption”) with sadistic staff who make side deals to keep kids working and cash flowing. Elwood learns the hard way that neither his intellect nor his morals will get him out early for good behaviour. Instead, he relies on the friendships he forms, most notably with fellow inmate Jack Turner, to survive.

Whitehead’s latest book demonstrates why he’s such a decorated author. His characters jump off the page and into your heart, the pacing is perfect, and he paints a vivid picture of the systemic racism that was part of growing up black in America in the 1950s. He also expertly pieces together the story through its three main plot lines: Elwood’s early years under his grandmother’s care, his time at the Nickel Academy, and his life as an adult recovering from the traumatic experience. Whitehead weaves each component together masterfully with a bittersweet plot twist and a deeply satisfying ending.

Additionally, Whitehead makes the clever choice to skip the entire legal process that lands Elwood at Nickel. This decision dramatically illustrates the heavy hand of systemic racism: instead of emphasizing that Elwood was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the absence of narrative shows that being found guilty was a foregone conclusion.

The descriptions of violence are also understated. This approach left many details to the reader’s imagination, and my version was haunting. Whitehead doesn’t shine a spotlight on the unpredictable and brutal beatings, but rather on the strained environment the boys live in. For example, Elwood considers himself “ruined” only a few months after his arrival, and notes how the boys “…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.”

I was also taken with the book’s imagery. For example, the leather strap for beatings was nicknamed “Black Beauty,” used by staff in a building called “The White House.” The tension between Elwood and Turner evokes a similar contrast between light and dark. Elwood relates to quotes by Dr. King like, “Throw us in jail and we will still love you,” whereas Turner proselytizes that “You got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” The author challenges readers to consider whether we survive by striving for justice, or by abandoning our ideals and doing whatever it takes.

In the acknowledgements, Whitehead shares that the story is based on the actual Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. AGDS was a gruesome place with a reputation for beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff throughout its 111-year history. In the absence of consequences for the perpetrators, we can at least read about the suffering and injustice. The boys didn’t have a voice to defend themselves at the time, but stories documented and shared by survivors, and fictionalized accounts such as this one, can be part of their collective voice now and will hopefully bring healing.

Amy Kellestine headshotAmy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.