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  • Writer's pictureZanele Mukhari

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

By: Zanele Mukhari

The Nickel Boys is one of Colson Whitehead’s latest novels and takes us on a fictitious journey that was inspired by a real life reformatory school in Florida USA, the Dozier School for Boys which operated from 1900 to 2011.

Our novel starts in Tallahassee in the 1960s where we are introduced to our protagonist, Elwood Curtis, a young black boy. The main character is a hard-working, smart boy who is raised by his grandmother after he is abandoned by both his parents. Throughout his young life, Elwood works diligently to ensure a successful future for himself but when he finds himself in a stolen car, his life takes a turn for the worst.

When Elwood is unfairly incarcerated for being at the wrong place at the wrong time (while black) he is sent to The Nickel Academy for Boys, a reformatory school for juvenile delinquents, orphans and boys society does not necessarily care about. The metaphorical phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” rings true when Elwood first arrives at the academy, with its lush greenery, three-story buildings and a football field, the atrocities that take place behind the walls are bound to leave the reader disturbed.

Segregation runs deeps at Nickel, from the job details they are given to food they eat. The 600 hundred boys are even housed in 2 separate campuses, down the hill for the white boys and up the hill for the black boys, the only thing they have in common are their visits to the White House, a work shed that is used as a punishment chamber.

I think we can all agree that humans yearn interpersonal relationships and when Elwood is wrongfully arrested and forced to leave behind his support system, he befriends Turner, another black boy at the academy. Turner who has been at the academy for a while warns Elwood to keep his head down to avoid any unwanted attention from the powers that be, but that goes against the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. which Elwood strives to emulate.

The phrase “every man for himself” is one all the boys at the academy live by and unfortunately for our main character, he finds that out the hard way. Never knowing what could agitate the housemen or supervisors at the academy, the boys try their best to stay out of trouble for fear of ending up another victim to what they call Black Beauty, a three foot long strap with a wooden handle.

In the novel, Whitehead jumps back and forth in time which gives his readers a sense of hope for the characters in the book but the next chapter is a surprise blow to the stomach, from one of the characters winning a prestigious boxing match at the academy, to his suspicious disappearance in the days that follow.

The Nickel Boys is a story of friendship, racism, secrecy and murder. The novel allows us to identify how a racist history continues to affect present day life. The Nickel Boys takes places right after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but the racism that continues to happen at the academy is an indication that people will treat each other the way they want to regardless of the law.

Whitehead manages to tie the novel together with the prologue that opens at the Nickel academy, when a group of archeology students discover unmarked graves and the acknowledgements gives insight to the real life story that took place at the Dozier School for Boys.

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