The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of The Dozier School for boys. The Nickle Academy, a reform school for boys is where Elwood finds himself after an unfortunate run-in with police. A smart, studious boy with a strong sense of justice, inspired by the civil rights movement and particularly Martin Luther King,
Elwood finds himself locked up in the segregated school, with boys from various other backgrounds, some put there by their families, others, wards of the state and others, like Elwood, for disciplinary reasons. He meets and befriends fellow ‘student’ Turner and together they try to keep under the radar, serve their time and hopefully leave Nickle.
The school is just a mask for what is effectively a cruel, racist and inhumane holding pen for boys under the age of 18. Punishments include solitary confinement, physical and sexual, abuse, food rationing and extremely severe beatings at ‘The Whitehouse’, from which a number of boys never return.
The two boys represent the two faces of the racial struggle gripping America at that time, hope and fear. The narrative is divided between two timelines, the 1960s and 2010s, and reading this book I was reminded of how desperately important it is to teach critical race theory. So many of the ills from the Jim Crow era are casually dismissed as the past, but segregation laws were only dismantled in 1968 in America, that’s within people’s living memories. Having just read American Wife, a fictional portrayal of the life of Laura Bush, also set during the same period, I’m astonished at how popular culture is able to skim over race and the very real racist reality of America during that period. Black people were barred from eating at certain restaurants, going to the cinema, going to amusement parks, drinking from the same water fountains, the list goes on. The consequences of such policies and segregation are still felt today. The education and prison system are just two examples of how America has failed it’s black population, and generational trauma ensures that vast numbers of people continue to suffer the aftermath.
Reading The Nickle Boys hurt. We talk about learning lessons of history when we talk about the Great Wars, or fighting injustices and of democracy, yet we take these lessons from people who are responsible for the oppression of others, the misrepresentation and worse, the eraser of inconvenient truths. When the second world war ended Black people were still barred from many aspects of life in America. Post Vietnam, after fighting for America, many black soldiers came back to an even more racially divided America that did little to help and support them unlike their white counterparts.
The Nickle Boys is an education that our school systems fail to give us. I would urge everyone to read this book. It’s hard and it will make you cry, and hopefully it will also make you angry, but ultimately it will shed light on our recent history and make you ask important questions about oppression, power and institutions that continue to support inequality today.
Have you read The Nickle Boys, or anything else by Colson Whitehead? This is my first book by the author however I’m looking forward to exploring his back catalogue.