Author: Colson Whitehead
Publishing Date: July 16, 2019
Pages: 224 (Hardcover)
In Jonathan Lear’s book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Lear puts front and center the paradox of how a culture carries on when everything which has sustained it has crumbled away, or—in the case of the Crow people—been taken from it. How does one speak? How do a culture’s songs and practices make any sense when the whole world they depend on has disappeared? In the words of the Psalmist, how can we sing the songs of Israel, while in Babylon?
The Psalmist’s question is not rooted in despair so much as integrity: the songs the Israelites sang were not tunes to be picked up and put down in any old place, but were songs integrated into a particular place, with particular people. Absent from their place, what good are the songs? In a new place, can we do anything but sing new songs?
The story of the Crow people is, in many ways, the easier story to tell, although it is one of cultural destruction. Theirs is a history which has been effaced by American settlers and changing cultural fortunes. I say “easier” because what is presented in Colson Whitehead’s book, The Nickel Boys, is a story of the alternative—of survival without total effacement, of making it out alive but on borrowed life.
Whitehead’s newest book is a historical novel written about the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. This juvenile “reform” school is the setting for a story, like the one Lear presents, of a culture which is dissolved and expunged, one person at a time. Many of the African-American boys who attended never came back. However, it also the story of survival, despite the fact that those who lived would never be the same again.
The novel opens against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, with black protagonist Elwood Curtis responding in awe to the words of deceased Martin Luther King, Jr. From a record given him by his grandmother, Curtis hears Dr. King speaking of the power of love—even if the whites throw them in jail, blacks will give them love in return. Curtis lives in Frenchtown, a historic African American community, where he has dreams of going to college. These dreams literally fall apart on the way to school as he finds himself unknowingly committing a crime, a deed which gets him sent to the Nickel Academy—a fictional analogue for the real-life horrors of the Dozier School.
At the Nickel, Curtis is befriended by Turner, a fellow black “student” whose approach differs from the optimism of King; he cares more about survival. Both white and black boys are sent to the Nickel, with the white students receiving beatings and suffering alongside their black counterparts. However, what occurs there is still a microcosm of the unjust world outside the Nickel Academy—white students suffering less than black students, even favored above them.
Whitehead’s earlier book and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Underground Railroad, deals with the question of history and race in a way which draws together brutal history and a hint of science-fiction drama. He transfigures American historical events into stories which never ended, as past blended into the present. In The Nickel Boys, the American past is transfigured into a more palatable key, and like The Underground Railroad, the past lives on in the present, but the weight of the past is unequally shared.
Whereas in The Underground Railroad the trauma of slaveholding was borne both by the slaveholders and the slave, in the context of The Nickel Boys the weight of the secret violence from the Dozier School is experienced only by its survivors. Perpetrators live on into their eighties and die remembered for philanthropy, racist pillars of the community never get their reward, and victims await the archaeology of college students to tell their story.
Yet, the living go on, bearing what has happened to them in service to the dead.
The book’s epilogue is a testimony to the suffering which Curtis, Turner, and their fellow students underwent at the Nickel—not as an escape from the past, but as an endurance of it. The story does not end with a celebration, justice, or despair; instead, it concludes with persistence. The survivors of the Nickel go on. They tell their stories, those of their friends, and those of their enemies. In the end, it is neither the optimism of King nor the realism of Turner with which we are left, but something more stubborn than either: hope.
This hope goes on, without confidence, walking forward in the ruins, remembering the songs of the homeland while still living in Babylon. It is a novel which lingers after the final pages, because it is a story America continues to live—through gentrification and Black Lives Matter, through prisons and housing, through plantation tours and voting districts.
The anonymous graveyards of the Dozier School for Boys are but one attempt to efface that which cannot be effaced, and to segregate a past which we have not yet come to terms with. In the opening scenes of the The Nickel Boys, college students unearth a historical site for college credit. However, it is more like an unveiling—a revelation—than archaeology. It is one more occasion for the past to come alive, and for the past to join its voices to the living who have remembered them, long after the rest of us have forgotten.