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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 11 comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

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

June 6, 2021 25 comments

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.

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