Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Novel, Whitehead Colson > The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – it will knock the wind out of you

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – it will knock the wind out of you

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (2019) French title: The Nickel Boys.

Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.

The Nickel Boys by Colson whitehead is based on the real story of the Florida School for Boys aka the Dozier School.

According to Wikipedia, it was a reform school operated by the state of Florida in the panhandle town of Marianna from January 1, 1900, to June 30, 2011. A second campus was opened in the town of Okeechobee in 1955. For a time, it was the largest juvenile reform institution in the United States. […] Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

I knew I wasn’t going to read a pleasant story. Whitehead opens his book with the present time, when forensic archeologists from the University of South Florida search for body remains in unofficial graves around the campus.

Then it moves back in time to tell us the story of Elwood Curtis who was sent to Nickel in the 1960s. Elwood was a black boy from Tallahassee. He was quiet, a good student, a hard worker and he had won a scholarship to college. He was on his way to college when he hitchhiked and was picked up by a man driving a stolen car. A policeman arrested them and Elwood was sent to Nickel.

Back home, Elwood was a fervent admirer of Martin Luther King, he had a record of one of his speeches and he was deeply moved and shaped by King’s ideas. The most important ones to him were to have and keep a sense of self-respect and also to commit to non-violence for things to change.

Elwood was ill-prepared for Nickel where there are no rules but arbitrary ones. He stepped up to help a smaller boy who was molested by older ones. It was a set up and he was sent to The White House, the place where boys were beaten up.

We are in the 1960s, Florida is still under the Jim Crow Laws and segregation is in place. At Nickel, the white and black boys live in separate buildings. They have a different name for the White House.

The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

Elwood had to stay in the infirmary for a couple of weeks after the beating. From what I read on Wikipedia, Whitehead didn’t invent anything, it was like this. The beatings could be so violent that the boys had their underwear embedded in their skin.

Elwood was never the same after that.

Luckily, he befriended Turner who was street smart and had good instincts to navigate the system and land them into a less exposed job than working in the fields. They became part of Jaimie’s crew and they did deliveries in town, mostly of goods stolen from Nickel. Some food donated by the State never reached the boys. They also did repairs, painting jobs for influent people in town. It was a system. This corruption isn’t mentioned on Wikipedia, so I can’t tell if it stems from the writer’s imagination or not. It sounds plausible, though. The leading figures in town knew everything, they were part of a system and it was the law of silence. They stuck together against the authorities. I can’t help thinking that the State of Florida chose to turn a blind eye.

Segregation was in full force, with its injustice and its sheer stupidity. See for yourself:

Their leader was a quiet-natured boy named Jaimie, who had the spindly, undernourished frame common to Nickel students. He bounced around Nickel a lot—his mother was Mexican, so they didn’t know what to do with him. On his arrival, he was put in with the white kids, but his first day working in the lime fields he got so dark that Spencer had him reassigned to the colored half. Jaimie spent a month in Cleveland, but then Director Hardee toured one day, took a look at that light face among the dark faces, and had him sent back to the white camp. Spencer bided his time and tossed him back a few weeks later. “I go back and forth,” Jaimie said as he raked up pine needles into a mound. He had the screwed-down smile of the rickety-toothed. “One day they’ll make up their minds, I suppose.”

I remember reading something similar in The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé. Black people having a light skin and being obliged to live in the white neighborhoods where they knew no one.

For Elwood, Turner and all the boys who had to live there, it was even harder if you were black. You can see in Nickel Boys the –alas—usual mechanisms of camps and abuse. When the boys arrive, they think there are rules:

Right now, all of you are Grubs. We have four ranks of behavior here—start as a Grub, work your way up to Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally, Ace. Earn merits for acting right, and you move on up the ladder. You work on achieving the highest rank of Ace and then you graduate and go home to your families.”

(It reminded me of the camp system in Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout It wasn’t a legal reformatory camp but the spirit was the same. It lets me think that it was the mindset of the time and that common people found normal to reform boys in such a way.)

But Elwood soon realized that the rules are a joke. The wardens do as they please and the boys live in constant fear. The rules change all the time and without any warning. You never know if you’re going to breach some unknown rule or if something you’re used to doing hasn’t suddenly become forbidden. And since punishment can lead you to the White House…

For Elwood, this system is his undoing. He wants to believe that he has a chance to go out if he behaves properly, he needs to hope that things will improve if he follows the rules. His character was shaped by King’s speeches and he tries to practice what King preaches. He thinks that self-respect is important for his dignity and that quiet but persistent mind resistance will undermine the Nickel institution. Elwood believes in King’s speeches about respect, about loving your enemy to make a difference. But hardship and abuse shake up his faith in King:

Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

A tall order, indeed. Turner is different, let optimistic, more realistic and cynic.

You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.

Turner is right. It’s easy to hide behind a “system” or to say it was “like that back in the day”. I was shocked and horrified by the abuse against the boys in Nickel. But I knew I was going to read something horrible about this school and I braced for it. I expected what I read. What took me by surprised and knocked the wind out of me is an anecdote from Elwood’s high school days at Lincoln High:

On the first day of the school year, the students of Lincoln High School received their new secondhand textbooks from the white high school across the way. Knowing where the textbooks were headed, the white students left inscriptions for the next owners: Choke Nigger! You Smell. Eat Shit. September was a tutorial of the latest epithets of Tallahassee’s white youth, which, like hemlines and haircuts, varied year to year. It was humiliating to open a biology book, turn to the page on the digestive system, and be confronted with Drop Dead NIGGER, but as the school year went on, the students of Lincoln High School stopped noticing the curses and impolite suggestions. How to get through the day of every indignity capsized you in a ditch? One learned to focus ones’ attention.

The secondhand textbooks thing is shocking enough in itself. But these insults stem from deep-bone hatred. There are gratuitous. The system allows to treat black students as second zone citizen but it is people who write insults in textbooks, not the system. I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement and all we hear about racism in the USA and said to myself “They’re never going to move from this if it was so ingrained and if they don’t do a federal sort of Truth and Reconciliation commission and put everything in the open.”

The Nickel Boys is an excellent book. It’s short, it packs a lot of information, the characters are engaging and it’s thought-provoking. No wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

PS: Serendipity. I’m writing this billet and just heard about a similar story in Canada with the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

  1. June 6, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    I need to brace myself to read this one. It’s a story that needs to be told, clearly, but I know it will be painful. And, as you say, the casual, deeply ingrained racism is almost worse. As an anthropologist, I’ve had to talk to people like that for my research and I really struggled not to argue with them or run away.

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    • June 6, 2021 at 3:10 pm

      It’s difficult to read, especially the scene at the White House, where the beatings are done.
      And it’s so unfair, to Elwood who didn’t do anything wrong (a lot of boys were sent there for nothing, or things that require a slap on the hand by a parent) and to all the boys who endured it.
      The actual school was only closed in 2011.

      And yes, this ingrained racism is worse. It destroys any hope that it’ll improve without an organized and staterun program to work on it, tell the truth and make amends.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. June 6, 2021 at 6:14 pm

    Wow, this really does sound like a hard read, though a necessary one. Not sure I am in the right place – I have trouble enough coping with the horrible revelations coming in the news. As for the racism, it’s not going to be easily dealt with until somehow a way is found to tackle that ingrained hatred – and I have no idea how that can be done. It’s difficult not to despair sometimes.

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    • June 7, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      It’s a hard read but like I said, I knew what I was getting into.

      (I’m not sure I know to what horrible revelations you’re referring to. Anything horrible happened in the UK?)

      Re-racism. Yes, it’s a tough battle. The first step is to try to fight against it. There’s no magic wand to cure the world from it. I guess it starts with acknowledging that it exists and that such laws as the Jim Crow laws are shameful and that issues should be openly discussed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. June 6, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    I’m a bit like Kaggsy in wondering how one can be optimistic about the future of humanity when one considers its past, including in the supposedly civilised West in the 20th century (there are good things too, of course).

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    • June 7, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      I remain optimistic because things do improve.

      Think about the Taubira law in France.
      There are things that we don’t accept anymore and when you look back in time, things have improved. Just not fast enough.

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  4. June 7, 2021 at 3:12 am

    I have this on my shelves… I think I need to be in the right frame of mind to read it because what you explain here sounds quite confronting and anger-inducing.

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    • June 7, 2021 at 9:04 pm

      “anger-inducing” is the right expression here. Yes, I knew it would be a tough read but it’s also the story of a wonderful friendship between Elwood and Turner. The ending has a twist I didn’t see coming…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. June 7, 2021 at 4:42 am

    I’m pleased to know about this book, but no, I really don’t want to read it.

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    • June 7, 2021 at 9:05 pm

      I think you’ve read thougher things than this. It’s not harder than some indigenous books you’ve read.

      Like

  6. June 8, 2021 at 3:39 am

    This is a terribly difficult book to read especially because it is so accurate and you’ve written about the book so well. The racism and hatred is so deeply embedded in some people that sometimes I do wonder if it will ever be uprooted, but have long thought the US needs a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation process for both Black and Ingenious Americans.

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    • June 8, 2021 at 9:23 pm

      I understand that you’ve read it too?
      Yes, I think a commission like this would be useful but who will have enough political courage to set it up,?
      I’d like to read Whitehead’s other book, Underground Railroad. Have you read it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

        Yes, a friend who’s a great fan of Whitehead’s work, and I read it kind of at the same time. But I haven’t read Underground Railroad which is a book that seems to be one that people really love or really dislike. (Often because of the fantasy elements.)

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  7. buriedinprint
    June 13, 2021 at 12:00 am

    I’m so glad that you included so many quotations and wrote at such length about this one…particularly as it seems like most everyone here ranks it as important material but too difficult to read…so your post is working as a mini-read for them! 🙂

    What I found most remarkable about this novel was the taut writing, and how deliberately and clearly he writes from start-until-stop, keeping a distance carefully so that readers fill in the emotion themselves. It’s very effective. (I also thought the turn of the narrative was very well handled…you will know what I mean.)

    The remains of the 215 children on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s land (which is currently called Kamloops by the Canadian government) are just one part of a genocidal system in (the country currently called) Canada…the link you’ve got also leads to another page which itemizes just how extensive the “residential school system” was (the last of that institution closed in only 1996) and how horrible the intergenerational trauma has been to follow. There are unmarked graves and missing children for each one of these institutions. Not necessarily the first thing people think of when they think of Canada…but maybe it should be.

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    • June 13, 2021 at 6:53 am

      Thank you. I always wonder if it’s a good idea to include so many quotes but sometimes I can’t resist. And if my billet gets this book one new reader, I’ll consider it a success.

      I agree with you about the writing, the remarkable ending. I couldn’t write much about that but I thought that the parts post-Nickel were very interesting too. They showed the hidden scars in an oblique way.
      And kuddos to Whitehead to have written such a short book. He could have dived into a lot of details but he didn’t. It’s effective for the narrative but it also gets the book a better chance to be read and the story to be known. Clever man.

      I knew of the residential system in Canada before hearing about Kamloops on the radio the other day. I don’t know how. Probably because I started to follow Radio Canada on Twitter before my trip to Québec and read news about it. There’s also this affair of Native Canadian women who were murdered and whose deaths were not properly investigated, isn’t it?

      You also have the Stolen Generations scandal in Australia that I heard about through Australian bloggers. On this topic, I highly recommend In Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara, an excellent choice for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week in July. 🙂

      The common point of the two countries? Both belonged to Great Britain, the country that set up the first concentration camps during the Second Boer War.

      At least, Canada and Australia are working on their issue and their Head of State made public amends about it.

      On my side, I think we don’t hear enough about what happened in the French overseas departments (Guyane, Guadeloupe, Martinique and La Réunion) and overseas territories, like La Nouvelle Calédonie. (And I’m not even talking about the War of Independance in Algeria and its trauma) I’m convinced there’s a scandal waiting to happen too.
      With the western mindset of superiority of their civilization and religion that prevailed, I’m sure that France has horror stories buried too.

      Like

  8. June 13, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve had this on my shelves for a while, waiting for the moment when i think I can cope with what will be a hard subject. It would uncomfortable enough if it was fiction but to know its based on fact and that some elements of the treatment are still in existence today, makes it doubly so

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    • June 13, 2021 at 10:31 pm

      The school has been shut down in 2011 and I’m not sure that boys were treated the same way in the 2010s as in the 1950s-1960s. These were terrible decades and there are still survivors who can talk.

      The treatment of the boys was awful, degrading and inhuman but Whitehead managed to keep an even tone, with precision and the reader puts the emotion on the facts themselves. Elwood and Turner are attaching and it’s an important read, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We just have to stop reading to find ourselves in the comfort of our homes. These boys had no way out.

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  9. June 18, 2021 at 10:02 am

    I started listening to an abridged audio version of this book at some point last year when Radio 4 serialised it as part of one of their book programmes (Book at Bedtime, I think). But I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t hack it back then, partly because of where we were in the pandemic as there’s a limit to how much pain or bleakness we can cope at any one time. Maybe I’ll try again with it in the future as it’s clearly a very important book…your post demonstrates that very effectively.

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    • June 19, 2021 at 6:45 am

      I can understand the feeling. During the worst of the pandemic, fluffy books seemed more appealing.

      I’d rather read this than listen to it. When you read, you choose your breathing times when it gets too hard, you can lift your eyes from the page and re-ground you in your home. That’s why I’d rather read violent crime fiction than watch it on screen.

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      • June 19, 2021 at 11:11 am

        That is a very good point about the reader being more in control of the experience with a physical book vs other media. Well worth keeping in mind for the future…

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