Trigger warning for child abuse and racism.
In the pages of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s devastating novel, we see two evils collide. On the one hand is deeply ingrained, pervasive racism. On the other is a horrifically unjust justice system. Children—Black children—are scooped up and destroyed by these two implacable forces. Although this book is fiction, it is based on a terribly real place that operated for far too long, the Dozier School for Boys in Okeechobee, Florida.
The narrator tells us to call him Elwood Curtis before he tells us the story of how a young Elwood became a victim of the justice system because of bad luck. Elwood had, in spite of everything stacked against him as a Black boy, a good shot at escaping his community’s poverty. His intelligence caught the eye of a teacher willing to look for opportunities for Elwood to get a better education. But, on this very first day of classes at a local college—before he even gets to the city where those classes will be held—Elwood has the misfortune of hitching a ride in a car that happened to be stolen. Even though it was only pure chance, Elwood is sent to a reform school that chews up and ruins the boys who are sent there.
The narrator takes us back and forth from that penal colony to his later life. We see him in the late 1960s, the late 1980s, and around the turn of the millennium. All of Elwood’s early hopes are gone. The man who is left has to rebuild himself the best he can. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one will listen to him when he and others try to tell the truth of what was done to them. It’s only when bodies are found in an unmarked burial ground, years after the school was finally closed, that the abuses and crimes committed there started to come to light.
When Elwood was still at the school, he would constantly think of an album of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Dr. King spoke of nonviolence, of being the better person when faced with hate and ugliness—but not allowing injustice to continue. Elwood sees injustice every where at the school. He should keep his head down, but who will speak for boys being battered into shells of themselves if no one else will?
Sadly, The Nickel Boys is not a story about heroes. It’s also not a story about relentless misery. Rather, it’s a story with heroes and a lot of misery, but it’s one that reveals what happens when humans, children, are sent to a place where bullies and racists are allowed to abuse with impunity. Most chilling of all, The Nickel Boys shows us that these bullies and racists firmly believe that their actions are justified. The boys in the school are faceless criminals to them. They never think about where the boys come from or what the long term effects the boy will suffer in the years after they leave—if they manage to leave at all.