It’s the 1960s in Tallahassee, Florida, and young Elwood Curtis has done everything a good kid is supposed to do to get ahead: he excels in school, he reads non-stop, he works a part-time job and listens to his grandmother (his only available parent). He is also black. And in the Jim Crow south, Elwood can never really get ahead.
In author Colson Whitehead’s new fiction novel The Nickel Boys – inspired by the true story of the Dozier School for Boys – Elwood is quickly hit with his reality. That is, as a black boy in the United States, you can play by the rules of a caste system all you want and still end up screwed. Because the system is made neither by you nor for you – it’s made to keep you down.
One slip-up lands Elwood at the Nickel School for Boys, a juvenile detention center-cum-reform school, where the only real curriculum is cruelty. Some boys are incarcerated for small crimes, some come from violence, others are simply orphans with no place else to go. The reasons for landing at Nickel don’t really matter because, once you get there, everyone is treated to the same beatings, the same sense of hopelessness – unless of course you’re black.
Because even when all the lost boys of the Nickel School seem to be at rock bottom, there exists below that a stratification reserved exclusively for people of colour, a depth so unjust white people cannot begin to believe it – or choose not to – but Whitehead digs it up and shows it. Look at this, he says, this is American history.
It’s difficult to read this emotional novel and not feel angry on Elwood’s behalf. That a great country can be so callous towards entire groups of people and so blind to the abuse of all its most vulnerable children is not an easy thing to stomach. Yet we continue to let it happen again and again. History repeats as if in a vacuum. Perhaps that’s why Whitehead felt compelled to write this book now.
When newly targeted out-groups suffer at our borders, terms like post-racial start to infiltrate modern day vernacular and movements for black rights are co-opted for all rights, the point is missed. Whitehead’s narrative also reminds us just how much the systemic oppression of decades past (but not many decades and not really past) continues to affect people of colour today. Look at this, he says, this is America today.
Like the rest of the South housing at Nickel is segregated, as are meals, schooling and activities. In the black dorms Elwood befriends the street-savvy Turner and the two boys become fast friends, each one needing the other to survive with more than just their bodies in tact.
Somewhere at its core, this is a novel about friendship and coming-of-age, but it is also about inequality – how promising, and ordinary, young men are doomed to a life on hard mode simply because they were born black. And that’s if they get to live it at all.
The Nickel Boys will be released from Penguin Random House 16 July 2019