Colson Whitehead’s approach to his subject in The Nickel Boys reminds me of issues raised about the recording of history in Mark Raphael Baker’s 1997 account of the Holocaust, The Fiftieth Gate, based, in part, upon his parents’ recollections. Baker’s argument, reduced to a simple dichotomy for the purposes of this review, holds that historical record is more reliable than memory; that primary evidence from history does not change, whereas memory is subject to elision, selection and reinterpretation. Anyone familiar with historical research will readily see the problem: that historical documentation may be subject to the same vagaries, not to mention the biases informing the production of documents to start with; also, there is the problem of which sources are preserved, as well as their eventual interpretation, often subject to ideological bias. To be succinct, as an historian, Baker came to realise the important role of human stories to enliven the historical record and give it relevance.
Whitehead’s novel is not an historical account of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which operated between 1900 and 2011. Instead, it is an account of a similar fictitious institution, the Nickel Academy, which is based so closely on Dozier that it is the same institution in everything but name. Whitehead’s fictionalisation of the school, however, allows him to imagine a history of people, of perpetrators and their victims – human stories, not just wretched archaeological remains and official records – with whom the reader may empathise, just as his parents’ account in The Fiftieth Gate brought the Holocaust alive for Baker.
The Dozier School was the subject of a number of investigations over the period of its operation. It was in fact a reform school, housing boys who had been in trouble with the law, but it also accommodated children who had lost their parents, or had simply been in trouble for minor things like truancy. It held both black and white boys, although the black population predominated, and the two groups were segregated. The layout of Whitehead’s fictional school also follows Dozier. When, in Whitehead’s story the school is decorated for the annual Christmas Fair – a money-maker for the school – both Elwood and Turner are impressed by the water tower, lit like a rocket ship. The water tower, clearly visible in aerial shots of the Dozier property, is a reminder to the boys of the rides at Fun Town, an amusement park unavailable to blacks due to segregation. More notorious is the White House, a squat building taken straight from the real Dozier, where boys are given severe beatings. And finally, Boot Hill, the cemetery on the property where at least fifty-five bodies were found at Dozier by archaeologists from the University of South Florida. Many more were found to buried in unmarked graves in the woods surrounding the school.
Whitehead not only dramatizes what happened in the school, but provides a perspective of the Civil Rights movement and the systemic racism against blacks in America. Elwood Curtis is a young black boy left with his grandmother, Harriet, after his parents leave him to live California. Harriet has suffered loss in her life due to Jim Crow laws and racism. Her father died in prison after his arrest for not getting out of the way of a white woman. Her husband was killed in a pool room by white men arguing over a pool table. Her son-in-law, Elwood’s father, who served in Vietnam, was almost killed by Whites jealous of a black man in uniform and never recovered. Now she is responsible for Elwood and she frets that the Martin Luther King’s record will put dangerous ideas into his head. Elwood is smart, idealistic and longs for a better life. This is measured by things he cannot do, like attend Fun Town or go to certain theatres due to racial segregation. But he also has hopes that the Civil Rights movement will change things for the better. The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education has just determined that schools should desegregate. And Martin Luther King Jr. is his hero. He listens incessantly to a recorded album of King’s, Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, until the vinal pops and crackles and he knows every word. But while Elwood is smart and industrious, he is also naïve. He defends stock from minor theft from other boys who will later punish him, even though his employer, Mr Marconi, knows it is better to accept a certain level of loss which he factors in to his prices. But for Elwood, it is a personal affront because
for him to do nothing was to undermine his own dignity. When he is accepted into college with the help of a black teacher, Mr Hill, himself a Civil Rights activist, the future he longs for seems attainable. But on his way to college on his first day he accepts a lift from another black man, Rodney, who is subsequently pulled over by police. Rodney is charged with car theft and Elwood is assumed to be his accomplice. He is sent to the Nickel Academy.
The terrible irony of Elwood’s incarceration may be somewhat convenient for Whitehead’s narrative: a smart, hardworking boy with the world at his feet brought low by a bad system. The irony heightens the injustice. But Whitehead provides us with a cast of other more regular boys at Nickel Academy, too. Most are semi- or non-literate, due to their socio-economic conditions, so the educational opportunities offered are inadequate for Elwood (if not for the boys in general). Turner, whom Elwood befriends, is smart but not book-smart like Elwood. He has the street smarts that Elwood lacks. It’s his second stint at Nickel Academy and he knows that playing by the rules is not a guarantee of getting out of the place. The merit system, meant to provide a path to release, is so poorly and inconsistently administered that no-one really knows how it works. Given Elwood’s idealism, it is not surprising that he receives his first belting in the White House on account of having tried to stop the bullying of one of the younger boys, as he once defended Mr Marconi’s stock. Phil, the houseman who comes across the incident decides it is not his job to find out what is actually happening.
Through the experience of Elwood and Turner, King’s appeal to blacks to take strength from Christian suffering is questioned. The notion of agape, of divine love, which transcends suffering and worldly abuse is offered by King as a path to freedom and eventual respect and recognition, as was the case for Christian martyrs and the early church. But Nickel is a representation of wider America, and the systemic abuse and prejudice that represses African Americans. And the experience of Nickel Academy shows there are many ways to resist. Sure, one might choose to try to follow the rules – the merit system – in blind faith. Or a court might intervene, as in the intervention of a family member for a school member, as in the wider society, Brown v. Board of Education, gives hope to Elwood. You could also choose to run; to flout the laws and take your chances. You could die. Or you could try to actively dismantle the system. What Whitehead reveals is a moral ambivalence that must be faced by individuals against systemic racism: whether the great lever that moves the world is violence, or higher ideals such as love and trust.
This is an important novel that reveals truth through fiction, or as Mark Raphael Baker might have termed it, the collective memory. Dozier School for boys is a terrible part of American history, and while the school was populated by both white and black boys, Colson Whitehead has also turned it into a powerful metaphor for the injustice of systemic racism in America.
The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.
Past the White House, blinking lights outlined the old water tower […] The lights floated on the X’s of the wooden struts, circled the huge tank, sketched the triangular peak. Like a spacecraft taking off. It reminded Turner of something, then it came to him – that amusement park, Fun Town, from the TV commercials. That dumb, happy music, the bumper cars and the roller coaster, and the Atomic Rocket. The other boys talked about the place from time to time, they’d go there when they were out in the free world again. Turner thought that was stupid. They didn’t let colored people in those nice places.
The Nickel Boys called the official cemetery Boot Hill, from the Saturday matinees they had enjoyed before they were sent to the school and exiled from such pastimes. The name stuck, generations later, with the South Florida students who’d never seen a Western in their lives. Boot Hill was just over the big slope on the north campus. The white concrete X’s that marked the graves caught the sunlight on bright afternoons.
All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It too a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spotted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds […] With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dug with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit.
Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.