Review: “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead


Release Date: July 16, 2019
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical Fiction



“As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.”


My Thoughts


Yeah, I know this book came out almost a year ago, but it’s just so good I couldn’t not write about it. Colson Whitehead is as great an author as everyone keeps telling you, and The Nickel Boys is one of his best works. Hard-hitting and emotionally devastating, this searing portrayal of two imprisoned Black teen boys will leave you shaking with anger.

Turner and Elwood wind up in Nickel Academy, a Dozier-like juvenile detention facility in Southern Florida that claims to educate and reform troubled boys and turn them into productive men. Instead, they suffer near-constant abuse, torture, and neglect. Whatever terrors the white boys experience on their end of campus is magnified on the Black side. There, the mostly white authority figures have free reign to indulge in their worst racist instincts with no repercussions or accountability. In the present, as archaeology students dig up the bones of the boys buried at Nickel and expose the truth, an older Elwood uncovers his own long-buried memories of his stint at the school of horrors.

Through Elwood, Turner, and the other Black boys at Nickel, Whitehead examines the systemic oppression built into the very foundation of our country. We see how white townsfolk happily and willingly rely on the slave labor of the Black boys, including buying at steep discounts supplies and resources designated for them (of course none of those profits get back to the boys). White people who could no longer wear their white hoods and sheets out in public were still just as racist. Like Michelle Alexander’s seminal work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The Nickel Boys shows how the prison industrial complex targets Black boys in order to create a more socially acceptable version of slavery.

But we also see how the Black boys resist in whatever small ways they can, how they hold on to a small piece of themselves in the face of a machine designed to smother and shatter them. Elwood left Nickel a broken man but found a way to put himself (mostly) back together. Black resilience is a powerful thing. What we have overcome with little to no help from nonBlack folx is truly awe-inspiring.

With a book like The Nickel Boys, English teachers still relying on authors like Joseph Conrad to “explore” race and racism in literature no longer have any excuse. Frankly, Conrad can go fuck himself. Replace his dusty ass with Colson Whitehead immediately.

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