by Ruchira Paul
“In New York City there lived a Nickel Boy who went by the name of Elwood Curtis…
When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.”
Colson Whitehead won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys in 2020, joining the ranks of three other writers recognized for the rare honor. His first was for another historical fiction The Underground Railroad in 2017. What are the odds of winning the Pulitzer for two books that deal with the same subject – the troubled race relations in America? Pretty good, I would say, if your second book is as brilliant as The Nickel Boys.
The Nickel Boys is a searing account of life in a boys’ reform school, the Nickel Academy, in Jim Crow era Florida where the book’s protagonist Elwood Curtis spent some time in the early 1960s. Based on a real life institution, the Dozier School for Boys (now closed) where an unmarked graveyard was unearthed in 2012, the book begins with a reference to that gruesome discovery. The skeletons and bone fragments of young adolescent boys that emerged pointed to violent deaths due to broken bones, caved in skulls, bullet wounds and severe malnutrition. Whitehead’s novel takes us on a journey beginning with Elwood’s early days of a mostly happy, placid and hardscrabble life under his grandmother’s watchful loving care. (His parents had abandoned him when they decided to escape the oppressive racism of Florida to seek a brighter future in California). A bookish, earnest and ambitious boy, he spent his days studying diligently in school and his spare time reading whatever books, magazines and newspapers he could lay his hands on. As a teenager he eschewed the pranks and pastimes of his peers and held down a part time job in a cigar shop owned by a kindly Italian American man whom he impressed with his meticulous work ethics.
When he was not reading, working or doing household chores, Elwood listened to a scratched up LP of MLK Jr’s speeches – “Martin Luther King At Zion Hill,” whose contents both inspired and mesmerized. Around him the great ferment of the civil rights movement was unfolding and he hoped to be a part of it.
A high school history teacher noticed his thirst for knowledge and academic aptitude and introduced Elwood to writers like James Baldwin and black newspapers like the Chicago Defender. Convinced that the boy would benefit from academic challenges that his poorly equipped segregated high school could not offer, the teacher arranged for Elwood to start classes at a black A&M college near his hometown of Tallahassee. Everything was going according to plan when without a moment’s notice and by sheer bad luck, Elwood’s expected life trajectory was rudely interrupted and the detour landed him in Nickel Academy. The terrifying and demoralizing stint at Nickel forever derailed the sweet tempered boy’s dreams and sense of self.
Nickel was like no other place Elwood had encountered or imagined before. A sprawling campus that housed both black and white boys in trouble, often not of their own making, was part of Florida’s juvenile justice system. Some of the boys were as young as ten or eleven years old. Many of the boys landed in Nickel as a result of minor skirmishes with the law. Some had records of more serious offence, often the outcome of abuse and neglect inflicted by family members and strangers. There were also those who were sent there only because no adult family member was willing to care for them, making them the state’s wards. And a few like Elwood were unwittingly ensnared by being in a wrong place at the wrong time. There were four official routes to freedom out of Nickel – 1) toe the line of the institutional tyrants and earn enough merits for early release; 2) the occasional rescue by a relative who was willing to take responsibility for an abandoned boy; 3) a successful legal challenge to the incarceration, a rare occurrence because it cost money and all the boys came from poor families; 4) reach the age of eighteen and automatically “graduate” from the academy. There was a fifth unofficial way out, hardly ever successful – run away and spend the rest of one’s life under cover. No matter which path the boys took, they left as damaged men. The degradation and debasement suffered at Nickel followed them through their lives. Many were unable to adjust to a “normal” life. Crime, substance abuse, the inability to hold down jobs or form stable relationships were common outcomes.
Nickel was advertised as a place that offered an education and teach work ethics to troubled kids and prepare them for the world outside. It was nothing like that. Strictly segregated along racial lines, the place was in reality, a glorified jail. The student population constituted an unpaid prison labor force. They worked in the school’s vast fields and farms growing fruit and vegetables. They cared for livestock and repaired heavy machinery. They maintained the grounds and built the bricks that made up the structures on campus and were sold to outside building contractors. All official state paperwork was printed in Nickel’s press by the boys – a huge boon to Florida’s state budget. The black dormitories were the target for the worst kind of abuse, willful neglect and theft. The food served there was of poor quality, the living quarters dingy, medical care inadequate and the quality of education abysmal. Elwood took most of the indignities in stride but the lack of learning opportunities appalled him. There were no proper textbooks, school supplies were meager and the classroom was overseen by a perpetually hung over teacher who didn’t make even a half-hearted attempt at pedagogy. Some of the teenage students couldn’t read or know how to add 2+3. Worst of all, no one cared. In fact the school sometimes resembled a torture chamber. Brutal beatings, verbal and sexual abuse and rampant corruption by the supervisors were the norm. The black house masters were terrified of their white superiors and most chose to look the other way in order to hold on to their jobs. It was a place where the custodians were the criminals and they had many enablers. Wealthy patrons of the school in the nearby town were complicit in the abuse and corruption.
On his first night at Cleveland (one of the black dormitories), Elwood went to sleep in a dilapidated bed in a room full of boys, all strangers. He awakened to a loud, inexplicable noise that sounded like the roar of a giant machine that lasted for a considerable length of time and in his perplexity the only word he could come up with to describe it was “torrential.” Through shock, dismay and excruciating pain, he soon found out the source of the sound and what it meant to occasionally see flashlights seeking out one or more sleeping boys after midnight who were then whisked away from their beds while others snickered nervously that someone was “going out for ice cream.” The agonizing punishment he endured on his visit to the nondescript “White House” for ice cream one night was literally etched into his flesh. It was once again on account of his being in the wrong place at the wrong time, spurred by his natural sense of decency.
Amidst the sordid and grisly surroundings, the boy inmates still managed to amuse themselves (sometimes at the cost of other students or their teachers), to steal a few extra minutes of shut eye on the sly, to play an energetic game in segregated playing fields. The human spirit is elastic enough to find glimmers of happiness even in the most dismal of circumstances. They forged unlikely friendships both for physical and emotional support. On the second day at Nickel, Elwood encountered a boy called Turner (his last name) who seemed to him as different from the others – neither a meek underdog, nor a bruising bully. Perfectly at ease among both kinds, Turner appeared to “bob in his own pocket of calm,” alert to his surroundings and at the same time outside of them. Turner too saw something special in Elwood, a smart person who was not savvy enough to navigate the complicated culture of Nickel on his own. The two boys became friends and frequent companions. The enigmatic and street smart Turner possessed a vast knowledge of the workings of Nickel – its geographic layout, its politics and the peculiar menace and weakness of each adult on campus. He showed Elwood a quiet secluded place at the edge of a field known simply as the “out back.” It was an even more sinister place than the White House with its roaring sound. Once a boy was taken there at night, he was not seen again. Authorities later reported him as a runaway. Turner took Elwood under his wings to keep him safe from the various treacherous pitfalls of life at Nickel. Elwood in turn trusted Turner and they became accomplices who watched each other’s backs until the end. The Nickel Boys is the story of a real place populated by fictional characters. It is a gripping tale that is both haunting and heartbreaking. I have described the backdrop of the novel. To learn the full story, please read the book. At just over 200 pages, it is a quick read.
The Nickel Boys was published in 2019, long after Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the official integration of segregated America. MLK’s professed “dream” is now approaching its sixtieth anniversary and in the recent past, Americans twice elected an African American man as their president. Yet we continue to experience events like Rodney King being battered and bloodied on a street of L.A., Trayvon Martin shot dead because he appeared suspicious in the eyes of a sleazy vigilante, Eric Garner dying a suffocating death while pleading for breath and many more racially charged incidents where the wanton killing of black men and women at the hands of white perpetrators went unpunished. The resultant movement of Black Lives Matter was heard by Americans at first and became a hashtag but it was soon trivialized by the what-aboutery of slogans like All Lives Matter and similar papering over of the fact that black men and women do indeed face a disproportionately high risk of arrests, incarceration and death at the hands of the police and self- appointed keepers of peace, sometimes while they are in their own homes.
It just so happens that I read The Nickel Boys in the past few days when several incidents involving African Americans being murdered or put in danger by whites were in the news. We learned of Ahmaud Arbery who got shot while jogging by a father-son duo on the mere suspicion of burglary while an accomplice videotaped the murder. A young white woman in Central Park frantically called the police falsely claiming that an African American man was about to harm her because she was outraged at being told to follow the rules of the park while knowing full well what might happen to the black man if the cops responded to her distress call. Just this past week we watched in horror while a white Minneapolis police officer calmly pressed his knee for nearly ten minutes on the neck of a handcuffed and prone black man who posed no threat to him or his colleagues. George Floyd, now dead, like Eric Garner in Staten Island too gasped in pain, “I can’t breathe,” during the policeman’s sadistic display of power while bystanders pleaded in vain for an end to the lethal act. In a video recorded in broad daylight, we heard a helpless grown man at one point cry “Mama!” while his life ebbed out. It was like watching an obscene snuff film. Absent a collective moral catharsis of white America, some will continue to harbor deep rooted racial prejudices, same as their parents and grandparents did and find ways to justify the tradition. Now that they have a man of their own ilk in the White House, even justification may not be necessary. At first Trump appeared unmoved by the atrocity in Minneapolis and when he did speak up, it was to invoke the threatening words of a Jim Crow era racist police chief in Florida during the civil rights unrest of 1967! Trump’s dog whistle is perfectly set to the frequency of the tune that already plays in the heads of many racist Americans but now with the sanction of their ideological leader they may be more emboldened to march to the music.
I found Whitehead’s book heartbreaking, terrifying and beautifully written. The author’s narrative style is tightly worded, calm and controlled. He describes the awful fate of the Nickel Boys with measured restraint – as the usual warp and weft of the fabric of life, in this case, lives defined by the color of one’s skin or social hierarchy and the power that others wield over them. Whitehead’s relaxed writing style in this book is akin to a train journey where the passing scenery consists variously of open fields, grazing cattle, gurgling streams and non-descript towns. Occasionally a gutted and burned out building comes into view and sometimes we pass the stinking mound of a land fill. The book is historical fiction. So one imagines that the reader is facing the rear of the train. The scenery that goes by is left behind. We don’t know what will be coming into view around the next curve in the tracks.
When Elwood Curtis first arrived at the Nickel Academy, he saw graceful brick buildings with gleaming green copper roofs surrounded by vast open fields and stately cedar and birch trees and he thought with some relief that the place didn’t look as forbidding as he had feared. The housemaster who escorted him to his dorm assured him that if he worked hard, followed the rules and remembered to say “Yes sir” to his superiors, he would be okay. Elwood believed him. Once inside the building he began to notice the dirty windows, the grimy walls, the cracked floors. Soon he realized that there were no high minded rules to follow and punishment often did not require a crime. One had to survive precariously by watching out for oneself, keeping one’s head low and going along with the corrupt ways of those who had the power. Elwood’s first and subsequent impressions of Nickel seem to me like a metaphor for America – its lofty promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the disturbing realities of inequality and injustice that its society is yet to tackle honestly.