Colson Whitehead's 'The Nickel Boys': Surviving and resisting in Jim Crow Florida

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In a recent interview with The Nation, Colson Whitehead said that his latest novel, The Nickel Boys, was spurred by a desire to understand the new American reality inaugurated in the era of Donald Trump. Illuminating the sense of incomprehension that led him to write the novel, he declared: "I don’t know what the hell is going on in this country." To grasp this contemporary moment of crisis, Whitehead returns to the archives.

The follow up to his 2016 runaway success, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead's new novel is inspired by the notorious Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which ran from 1900 to 2011, when it was finally shuttered after failing a state inspection. Since closing down, the remains of dozens bodies have been excavated from the school grounds, and former students have come forward to reveal the pedagogical practices -- including physical abuse, crass exploitation, and sexual violence -- upon which the reformatory school was founded. The school's long history disturbingly distills the hostility to racialized and low-income people that stands at the centre of the American enterprise, as well as the carefully cultivated inattention to these violent conditions.

In The Nickel Boys, Dozier School becomes the Nickel Academy, which is where the novel's young protagonist -- Elwood Curtis -- is sent after being caught in a stolen car that had picked him up as he hitchhiked to his first day of college classes. Set in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, Elwood enters the segregated reformatory with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. ringing in his head, especially the injunction to love one's enemy.

While there, Elwood strikes up a friendship with the world-weary Turner, who believes that such an idealist ethos exists at a remove from their lived reality. Despite the clash in their temperaments, the two friends support each other in their attempt to survive a brutal environment where inequity and violence are woven into the social fabric.

The Nickel Academy serves as a microcosm for exploring the mechanics of America’s racial hierarchy. With his effortless and taut prose, Whitehead unflinchingly describes how the students are subject to a range of practices developed to press Black flesh into the services of white accumulation, whether through incarceration, forced labour, or the redirection of community resources.

What is perhaps most disturbing is how he also forces us to reckon with racism’s frightening illogic. This is a lesson learned early in the novel. Near the beginning of Elwood’s stay in the reformatory, he is pulled out of his dorm room and taken to the White House, a rundown shack at the edge of the campus where teachers establish the unwritten law of the Nickel Academy under the cover of night and a large industrial fan. As he awaits his beating, Elwood desperately attempts to connect the number of strokes his classmates receive to the scale of their offense, and comes to a shocking realization: "It didn't make sense… Maybe there was no system at all to the violence and no one, not the keepers nor the kept, knew what happened or why" (68). It is a formative moment. If, as Whitehead suggests, racism serves as an instrument of capitalism, it is also true that it is not reducible to this function. Instead, the brutality is the point.

Although Whitehead is relentless in his representation of the seemingly insurmountable structures of anti-Blackness, he is also sensitive to the ingenious and sometimes self-destructive methods deployed by subjugated peoples to resist white capitalist domination. Whitehead realizes this aspect of the novel not only through his depiction of Elwood and Turner's shared negotiation of reformatory living, but also by drawing upon a host of peripheral characters, such as Elwood’s grandmother, Griff the boxer, and a fugitive named Clayton Smith.

Whitehead’s masterful ability to shift in and out of these smaller narratives offers him a larger canvas for exploring the dynamics of life under Jim Crow. By additionally interweaving the narration of the Nickel Academy with the perspective of a mature Elwood, the novel illuminates the racialized subject’s capacity to elude the mechanisms of white supremacy. It is at such moments that Whitehead allows his optimism to make a shy appearance, as he asserts how Black life boldly endures, even as its every expression exists under the threat of erasure.

While the pedagogy of the Nickel Academy maintains that "It is best not to move," Whitehead’s significant counternarrative is that resistance, of any scale, is the only conceivable path. Though the game is rigged, and defiance is repeatedly met with the bloodlust of retribution, one must nevertheless stave off the temptation of complacency. This is Elwood’s disturbing realization:

In keeping his head down… he fooled himself that he had prevailed. That he had outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact he had been ruined. 

At this pivotal moment in the narrative, Elwood learns the imperative of resistance, and it is a lesson that establishes the trajectory of his life. The novel's beauty consists in the fact that, while Whitehead  attends to the stark realities of American racism, he also portrays those resilient lives that labour, with great difficulty and varying degrees of success, to withstand the crush of injustice.

Returning to the sense of incomprehension that Whitehead describes as fuelling his novel, I would suggest that the discovery he makes  -- behind the dilapidated schoolyard, buried amongst the unmarked graves -- is that America has been here before. If white supremacy is on the rise, then the anti-racist work undertaken by canonized political heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr., as well as altogether more ordinary resisters, such as Elwood and Turner, must be continued with renewed intensity.

This discovery does not yield any easy ways out of our present-day dilemmas, but points towards the political work still needed to dismantle the racism that has stood at the heart of the American experiment for so long.

Image credit: VCU Libraries/Flickr

Rohan Ghatage is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, where he studies American literature.

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