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“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
May 2nd, 2023


“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 life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”

Whitehead’s gripping novel is based on The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida that allowed physical and sexual abuse from 1900 until 2010. Allegations of mistreatment and murder circled the school for years, but despite investigations and promises, the school tradition continued. After a formal investigation, researchers uncovered a hidden graveyard where over 55 bodies were buried, only a few of which have been identified by name. This fictionalized version of events is centered on the story of Elwood Curtis, a 17-year-old black boy, raised by his grandmother and about to venture to college. When he hitches a ride to school, the police discover the car is stolen and immediately sentence Elwood to the reform school. A black boy in the body of a black man is a perceived criminal and menace to society. Justice is not a viable outcome for Elwood.   

Inspired by the speeches of MLK, Elwood struggles with the conundrum of loving his fellow man and revolting against injustice at every corner: “He who gets behind in a race must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front.” As Elwood adjusts to a life without freedom, he learns the hard way that the unspoken rules apply more vehemently than those directly communicated. Even in the confines of a reform school, the hierarchical structure of society dictates the winners and the losers in a setting reserved for those who have lost. 

I read this Whitehead novel directly after reading The Underground Railroad (2016). I knew the terror inflicted at the reform school would be difficult to digest, but Whitehead accurately depicts the horror without marinating in the details. He doesn’t disguise the tragedy, but he relies on the reader’s imagination more frequently than I would have expected. The novel’s themes of self-discovery, friendship, and love anchor the novel in a world of madness and tragedy. Whitehead eloquently explains via this narrative why the suffering stay silent, the collective effort that ensures atrocities continue. Whitehead stabs at the assumption that the truly victimized spill their secrets, showing that the silencers and those who turn a blind eye to perpetual violence are as guilty as the perpetrators. 

“It was crazy to run and crazy not to run. How could a boy look past the school’s property line, see that free and living world beyond, and not contemplate a dash to freedom? To write one’s own story for once. To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity.”