“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”
Inspired by real-life events, ‘The Nickel Boys’ is angsty and barbaric. One of the darkest phases in American history, a time when systemic racism was deep-rooted in society, thereby destroying thousands of bright and talented black lives.
Elwood Curtis, a perceptive and astute child, dreams of a college education. He was raised by his strict but loving grandmother, in a family that has always lived under the shadows of racism, losing it’s members one by one to meaningless violence. As a child, Elwood loved reading, absorbing and memorizing anything with reach. His idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and grew up listening to his speeches and dreaming of a better world. His nature was shaped by King Jr.’s speeches, and over the years we find him struggling to find peace between the way of life he wanted to lead and the workings of a cruel world.
After a borrowed ride in a stolen car on his first day to a Black college, Elwood is sent to a reformatory school called ‘The Nickel Academy’. The residents of this school are teenagers, both ‘black and white’, who have committed sins like petty theft, truancy, ‘disrespecting’ a white person, etc, or are orphans or runaways.
The Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform school, claims to teach its youth, skills that will help them survive in the world, a place where overall development is the sole focus. But behind all this facade is a facility that practices unspeakable brutality. The Black kids are subjected to prejudice and the punishment is based solely on the whims of the staff. Students are beaten black and blue for minor mishaps and sometimes they disappear ‘out back’ forever.
“To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds were tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth. Everybody and nobody around at the same time.
Elwood, ‘as good as any other’ tries to fight against injustice and corruption with a good heart and decent motives. But once he meets the cynical Turner, he begins to wonder if the answer to cruelty is cruelty itself. As Elwood talks about his past life, while he is in New York trying to settle down, he repeatedly mentions how his experiences still haunt him.
“was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.”
The book gives us a piece of history that will bring up all the pent up rage you’ve had against every act of racism you encountered or read. ‘The Nickel Academy’ is a fictionized version of an actual reform school in Florida, a school where countless unidentified skeletons were found, severy tortured and lost within the Earth without a proper burial. Whitehead’s prose is interspersed with quotes from the actual victims and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches that inspired thousands of Black youth to fight for recognition and respect through a simple act of love and acceptance.
‘The Nickel Boys’ is not only about this school, but who people inherently are. Elwood, an idealist tries to move forward by believing in the good in people whereas Turner is more cynical and believes in finding ways to stay clear of any mess through extensive planning and connections. The narrative is plain and in very few words, the author feeds us bitter truths, leaving the readers to feel this mindless and severe injustice. It is brutal in more ways than one. Elwood’s strength and innocence draw attention and stay with the readers until the very end.
Blurb (as on Goodreads):
Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.
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 in 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 on to 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 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.