Staff Picks: The Nickel Boys
Happy Juneteenth, everybody! Yes, it’s a real holiday and yes—it’s okay if you didn’t know that. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Juneteenth is a holiday (now federally recognized) that celebrates the end of slavery. It commemorates the final day in which enslaved people were notified of their emancipation. Because nearly two years after good ol’ Abe Links (aka Abraham Lincoln) signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Texas still hadn’t gotten the memo. Which isn’t surprising on a number of levels, but I digress. So, in celebration of this holiday that needs to be more than just a reason to take the day off from work, let’s look at The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, a book that tells of a boy’s fight for survival against one of the most evil forces ever created: White authority in the Jim Crow-era south.
Let me begin by saying OH. MY. GOODNESS. This book is intense. Colson Whitehead manages to craft a story filled with despair, violence, friendship, perseverance, and hope while critiquing the ways in which systemic racism, under the guise of reform, continues to affect Black boys’ lives and well-being.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The story begins with Elwood Curtis, a young man who’s managed to keep himself out of trouble and find academic success, thanks to his grandmother. With the news that Elwood will be enrolling in the local Black college come Fall, it seems that trouble can’t help but appear. The boy makes his first real mistake, but it’s a costly one. Instead of sitting in lecture halls, Elwood finds himself within the walls of Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory school for boys. It isn’t long before he witnesses the loss of humanity and with it, his spirit.
Elwood manages to find solace in the form of an eccentric friendship with fellow inmate—I mean student—Jack Turner. Now, Jack has seen some atrocities during his time at Nickel, which only heightens his frustration with Elwood’s naivety. Nevertheless, the two stick together as they try to navigate the looming violence and pain that awaits. It isn’t long before Elwood becomes fed up with the abuse experienced by himself and his peers, which leads to a decision, and twist, that will forever change the course of their lives.
What I love about this story is how grounded the narrative felt. An institution that especially preys on boys of color that’s operated for decades without much concern seems … well, concerning. Yet, Whitehead uses his powers to expertly weave this tale in a way that feels like it could have happened to anyone. To me. That’s what is so compelling about this book—to realize how easy it was and can still be to rip a young, Black man’s dreams right from his hands, before he’s even had a chance to gaze upon its glow. What’s more, learning that this juvenile reformatory school was based on a REAL place (the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys), just makes the events that take place even more harrowing.
Colson Whitehead has created a modern American classic. Though told in a time that has since passed, The Nickel Boys explores the abuse of authority, violence, and fear for survival—topics that continue to disproportionately affect people of color—in a way that isn’t chastising towards its audience, but still does not look away. Despite the heartbreaking subject matter, the characters persist, even going so far as holding on to their hope. The unwavering spirit shines through the text, leaving the reader moved, in what we can only hope, like Elwood, is in a direction towards the fight for true freedom.
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