Review: Colson Whitehead and the long reach of trauma

An abandoned building on the campus of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. The inspiration for Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, the notorious reform school was closed in 2011. (Imdb)

The prologue of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Nickel Boys, reads like one long extended metaphor for the racial history of the United States—in particular the last several months, when nationwide protests have erupted over the murders of Black citizens by the police. “Even in death the boys were trouble,” Whitehead begins, “the boys” being the bodies found in mass graves on the grounds of a reform school, the Nickel Academy.

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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Anchor Books

224p, $15.95

The “trouble” the boys cause is a headache for the real estate company that discovers them, the office park they planned to build put on hold for this “expensive complication.” Once the news of the graves breaks, developers and the rest of those in power have to wait for the discovery to be “neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.”

At its outset, the novel establishes that those who write history are the same ones who get to erase it. “All the boys knew about that rotten spot,” Whitehead writes in the opening pages. “It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there.” The surprise is never what has happened, but how long it takes the nation to care.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s long arc of justice is nowhere near its end and cannot meet the ground as long as history is written only by those who have a stake in washing away the very blood they have shed.

The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis, one of the Nickel Academy’s students in the 1960s, though “inmate” might be a more apt descriptor of his role at the school. Curtis is an earnest and ambitious teenager whose grandmother “raised him strict,” allowing the other parents on their street to “keep Elwood apart by holding him up as an example.” Because his grandmother doesn’t allow him to listen to music, he listens to his record of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, “the best gift of his life,” which he commits to memory, “even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.” But when he hitches a ride to his first college class from someone in a stolen car, he’s caught and sent to the Nickel Academy as punishment for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Whitehead based the Nickel Academy on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., which didn’t close until 2011. Whitehead’s acknowledgments make clear that he invented the novel’s characters, but the atrocities of the school—solitary confinement, boys snatched from their beds in the middle of the night to be brutally beaten for minor or fabricated infractions, authority figures who watch the boys shower, and, of course, boys killed and buried on the grounds—are all conjured from the real-life testimony of the men who lived to tell their own stories, even when mainstream history kept those stories locked away.

Although the men who spent their boyhoods at the Dozier School for Boys tried for years to speak out about what they’d lived through, it wasn’t until anthropologists from the University of South Florida uncovered the remains of 55 bodies that the news paid attention. “I got the worst beating I ever got at that school,” Jerry Cooper told The Guardian last year, “over a hundred lashes at two o’clock in the morning, searing the cloth of my nightgown and my underwear into my skin. I was sure I wasn’t going to survive.”

“But there were those of us who didn’t. I told them for years there’s a lot more boys dead than the 55 they located. We’ve always known this.”

The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis, one of the Nickel Academy’s students in the 1960s, though “inmate” might be a more apt descriptor of his role at the school.

The fictional Nickel Academy’s founder, Trevor Nickel, started the school in 1946 after he “made an impression at Klan meetings” with his “speeches on moral improvement and the value of work.” The school’s origins were facilitated by racism, its greatest victims the ones silenced by years of inaction by authorities. Past the White House, the center of the school’s worst violence, is what Elwood’s best friend, Turner, calls out back, where two oaks have iron rings embedded in the bark. “They say once in a while they take a black boy here and shackle him up to those,” Turner tells Elwood. “Arms spread out. Then they get a horse whip and tear him up.”

Elwood asks if white boys get taken out back too. But Turner says it’s just for Black boys. “They take you out back, they don’t bring you to the hospital. They put you down as escaped and that’s that, boy.”

The Nickel Academy is more concerned with the appearance of reform than it is with actually achieving it. Late in the novel, inspectors come to the school, which has been tipped off about the surprise visit from one of the director’s fraternity brothers. In preparation, the boys are put to work, adding coats of paint and making small repairs to the grounds. They are bribed with a good meal, new clothes, fresh haircuts and school supplies. But Elwood and Turner’s house father makes it clear these bribes have a price. “You boys mess up, it’s your ass,” he warns them.

The novel’s structure is split between two stories, one happening to the Elwood of the past, the other following the Elwood of the present. What is remarkable about Whitehead’s interwoven storylines is watching the effects of trauma decades later, the memories becoming echoes of a greater psychic haunting of the Nickel Academy. Elwood runs into a former classmate in the present day storyline, still reeling from the abuse of his past. “That’s what the school did to a boy,” writes Whitehead. “It didn’t stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.”

Elwood’s early love for Martin Luther King Jr.’s optimistic rhetoric ultimately does nothing to save him from the despair of being a Black inmate trapped by an institution designed to break him down. “The capacity to suffer,” Whitehead writes, “Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity.” That capacity required their silence. “Otherwise they would have perished,” writes Whitehead. “The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them?” Elwood decides King’s proclamation that even when broken down by oppressors they will still love them is an impossible thing to ask.

And yet this is exactly what the United States, over half a century later, continues to ask Black citizens to do by policing the ways they protest or walk down the street, where they fall asleep, how they exist within their own homes. The Nickel Boys lets readers learn our own dark history that was kept hidden until it was uncovered. King’s long arc of justice is nowhere near its end and cannot meet the ground as long as history is written only by those who have a stake in washing away the very blood they have shed.

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