“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, 2019
a true fiction story based on a state boys 'reform' school in Marianna, Florida
in the Florida panhandle. The place was called the Arthur Dozier School for
Boys at the time, but here it is named the Nickel School. It was established in
1900 and closed in 2011 due to overwhelming problems. Like the Christian/Canadian Govt. indigenous boarding
schools in Canada and the U.S., or the Catholic/Irish Govt. Madeleine Laundries / Asylums in Ireland,
bodies and bones were found in unmarked graves on the school grounds. You can
still look at the remains of the school on Google Maps, see it's most
notorious building and locate its official cemetery off in the woods.
The key character is Elwood, a 17 year old high school student. He's a bright,
dark-skinned boy from Tallahassee who gets caught in a stolen car while he's
hitch-hiking to attend a college course. He's sent to Nickel as a car thief
even though the driver was the thief. It's 1963 or so and the U.S. legal
system, especially in Florida, is racist and ridiculous. So what does Elwood
learn in his time at Nickel?
He meets a street-smart friend, Turner. He learns that the education there is a joke. After he tries to break up a fight, he learns that vicious corporal punishment is administered in a small storage shed called the 'White House.' The White House is where torture and beatings are administered under the loud whir of an industrial fan. He is beaten bloody. He learns that medical care consists of aspirin and aspirin only. He finds out that state goods for the school are sold to local businesses by the managers of the school and that kid's labor is loaned out to various local big-wig business people for free. He understands that several are killed for standing up to the top boss or escaping and later, secretly buried after being taken 'out back.' He learns that some boys are raped in closets by staff or other boys; some stuck in sweat-boxes as punishment – one dying. Tiny rooms at the top of the dorms become isolation cells. He finds out that the schools' products – bricks, harvested food and a print shop – are profitable for the state, while the boys are paid nothing. He learns how to hide his feelings and curb any visible instinct to rebel or help.
|The 'white house' at Dozier / Nickel
At the time Elwood attends, the school is segregated by skin color, as its
still Jim Crow time. 600 boys are incarcerated there, of all skin colors - but the darker got it worst. After his ordeal,
Whitehead tells the supposed story of Elwood in New York where he meets and
hears about some other former boys from Nickel or places like it. They are dead
in Vietnam or former army, alcoholic and drugged, unable to hold a job, violent
or troubled in many ways. Elwood seems to be doing the best.
How does Elwood try to get out? He rejects 'loving thy enemy' preached by Dr. King. Instead he writes to the Chicago Defender and takes notes of all the goings on – especially the embezzling of food. He believes the white Florida state inspectors will take heed and he won't get caught. After all, it's the civil rights movement and he's inspired by letters like the one from King's Birmingham jail cell. But inspiration isn't enough. Hey muthafucka, it's the Jim Crow South, as (Nat?) Turner might have told him.
Eventually, after reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, the school becomes a national scandal full of gruesome discoveries. It is perhaps worse than a Dickensian orphanage and work house, but also a commentary on the incarceration state in the U.S. that is still going on. It is important that this story is not just located in the distant past, but was uncovered somewhat recently. So many current historical anti-racist novels only center slavery or Jim Crow without touching the present. After all, the 'present' is the thing that we deal with now and ignoring it is a form of safely historicizing social reality, of shoving it into the past, of distancing. This is a riveting personal story of two boys, based on historical truth. It will keep you glued to your reading chair.
Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 17 year archive, using these terms: “The South – Jim Crow & It's Afterlives” (A. Reed); “The New Jim Crow” (Alexander); “Caste” (Wilkerson); “Rustin,” “No Name in the Street” (Baldwin); “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (A. Davis); “Selma” (Duvernay); “Prison Strike Against Modern Slavery,” “Just Mercy,” Slavery by Another Name.”
May Day Books has many leftish fiction books and books on Jim Crow.
Red Frog / February 19, 2024