Million Dollar Applause for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys

If you bump into me on the street and you notice the matching luggage weighing down both of my eyes and ask me what happened, I will simply reply “It was all Colson’s fault.” On July 16th, Whitehead released his much anticipated novel The Nickel Boys. I first need to confess that I am already partial to this story because it is based upon the Dozier Academy, an actual reform school for boys that operated in the state of Florida from the early 1900’s until 2011. About two years ago, a number of unmarked graves were discovered on the academy’s campus. Upon careful examination of the bodies, it had been discovered that the remains belonged at the time to unidentified young men who suffered from life threatening forms of physical trauma. Upon careful research, Whitehead learned that the school had been clothed in rumors of allegations of sexual and physical abuse and in some cases murder by the school’s administration and faculty. Students sent to the school were often orphans or kids as young as five accused of petty crimes. Many of these allegations were overlooked for the school provided a nice source of free labor for the state of Florida.

My heart bled for Curtis Elwood, the main character of the story. He was born in raised in Tallahassee, Florida and reared by his grandmother. He comes of age in the 1960’s and grows intoxicated with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and his nonviolent ideology after his grandmother gifts him a record of King’s famous speeches. He almost makes his grandmother regret giving him the record, for he plays it continuously and memorizes every line of every speech. His admiration and energy is harnessed by a young teacher who proudly wears the scars he earned from his time in SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee). I was so inspired by Whitehead’s portrait of this young teacher. As soon as he enters the class, he instructs all of his students to use a black marker to strike a line through all of the offensive messages left in their hand me down books from the white schools before they begin their lesson. He is Curtis’ first direct line to the movement. I was also excited by the fact that in the book Elwood attends Lincoln High School in 1964 which was the same high school and year my father- in law attended the school and like Curtis provided a pipeline to SNCC which was operating nearby on FAMU’s campus. Like my father -in law, Curtis participates in the 1964 sit in at the local Tallahassee movie theater. His teacher along with everyone else in the community sees Curtis’ potential and eventually offers him the deal of a life time: an opportunity to take college courses as a high school junior at a new nearby university.

Curtis is ecstatic . Unfortunately, he never arrives at the school. On the way he hitchhikes and is picked up unknowingly by a young man driving a stolen car. When they are pulled over, he is quickly sentenced to a period at the Nickel Academy. When he arrives, he is comforted by the exterior which is almost an identical mirror image to the university he would have instead attended. However, the inside and the horrors that await quickly introduces him to a new battle ground to test his commitment to the nonviolence movement. Among the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse he witnesses and in some cases experiences first hand, he has to determine to what extent can he still “love his enemy.” More importantly, he has to fight to resist slipping into the terrifying submissive, apathetic, and helpless role assumed by so many of the men in his community as their only coping mechanism under white supremacy. I am not sure but I believe the latter scares him the most.

I loved loved loved loved this book! We live in an age where King’s image has become safe and almost Mr. “Rogerish.” King was a radical. King was non-compromising. Whitehead’s repeated use of excerpts from King’s speeches throughout the book reminds us of just how radical the nonviolent movement was. I can not wait to use this book as a teaching tool this year.

Also , please read it to the very end because it has one hell of a twist. My only issue, is that the book had to end.