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Colson Whitehead, American Escape Artist

"The Nickel Boys" frees voices imprisoned in a forgotten past.

Odd Anderson /AFP/Getty

Ten years ago, an article in the Tampa Bay Times began telling a little-known story. Its first two lines are as searing as any in American contemporary literature: “The men remember the same things: blood on the walls, bits of lip or tongue on the pillow, the smell of urine and whiskey, the way the bed springs sang with each blow. The way they cried out for Jesus or mama.” Its authors, Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, described that dirty shed almost like an impressionist painting, hunks of flesh and a thousand memories decorating its surfaces. But blood can be cleaned away: The human heart stains permanently. 

The Florida School for Boys was a correctional school for minors, founded as the Florida State Reform School in 1900, then ultimately renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. It was a place where terrifying sexual and physical abuse was standard, especially for its black pupils: rape, whippings, and solitary confinement were common, occasionally even murder. School inspectors first blew the whistle on the school in 1903, when they found children chained in irons. In 1911 a state report noted, “The Negro School impressed your committee as being more in the nature of a convict camp, than anything else we can think of.” A hundred years of scandal did little to better the kids’ living conditions. The “school” stayed open until 2011.  

The horrors of the 111 years of its existence are almost unbearable to acknowledge. Here is one truth, chosen at random from Montgomery and Moore’s 2009 exposé, which finally led to its closing: In 1969, a reporter found a boy named Jim, age 16, in solitary confinement, covered in terrible and self-inflicted lacerations, having eaten a lightbulb he had pulled from the ceiling.

Colson Whitehead, craftsman of beauty from the raw material of American pain, has chosen to acknowledge the school’s century of agony in his new novel, The Nickel Boys. It follows a fictional black boy named Elwood Curtis who finds himself incarcerated in a correctional school after committing no crime whatsoever. Whitehead in 2014 read about the real school in the Tampa Bay Times, which at the time was covering the University of South Florida archaeology students who were exhuming a number of unmarked graves there. It was the summer of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s tragic deaths.

Whitehead “felt revulsion and rage” at the reports, he recently told the same Florida newspaper. “It was the same indifference to black lives, to the poor, to people with no power who cannot defend themselves,” he said. He could not bring himself to actually visit Marianna, Florida, where the school was located. “If I went,” he said, “it would be with a bulldozer, with dynamite.”

Instead, he visited the boys through fiction. The Nickel Boys is not a sequel to The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning 2016 novel that reimagined the Railroad as a literal, underground escape route. That book was about the suffering and emancipation of enslaved Americans from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. This new book begins a century later, but it also concerns the kinds of black suffering that some people just don’t want to read about—the episodes of sickening violence we think we know, but only vaguely. A negative review of The Undergound Railroad in National Review, for example, complained about the way Whitehead “teaches and preaches” about the sins of America’s past, such as whites’ treatment of Native Americans. “Can’t Whitehead assume that people know this?” the critic wrote.

The blood-spattered shed behind the Florida School for Boys says different.

Elwood is a true nerd. “Wore eyeglasses you wanted to grind underfoot like a butterfly,” as his friend Turner notes. He lives with his grandmother in Frenchtown, Tallahassee. Fiercely smart, Elwood “received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962”: a record of Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, which “never left the turntable.” We are inside Elwood’s head, his obsession with King’s words ringing round the novel like a memory you can’t shake: “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.

We follow Elwood to his weekend job at the newsagent; around the hotel where his grandmother works. All the while he feels that somebody-ness. Fate intervenes when he accepts a ride to a local college class in a car that he does not realize is stolen. He’s sent to the correctional school—named “Nickel” after a fictional reformer who loved to watch black boys fight each other—in short order.

Elwood wakes up to the awful reality of his school, which is actually a prison, the first time he is taken to the shed where boys are whipped for minor infractions of the rules. The white boys call it the “Ice Cream Factory,” because their skin bruises every color of the rainbow there; the black boys call it “the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished.”

“Out back” is a different place, where boys go when they are not supposed to return. The threat of murder hangs over The Nickel Boys from the beginning, when we meet the fictional counterpart of the team of student archaeologists who are excavating graves, revealing a legacy of secret death. A big tree behind the school still has “two iron rings” embedded in it, where shackles would constrain a boy for his fatal whipping. “Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead by now,” Whitehead writes, looking back from the present moment. “The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

This kind of figurative treatment of pain is Whitehead’s signature. When he writes of the “rings in the trees,” he means the marks of passing years inside a tree’s trunk as much as the metal shackles bolted there. As in The Underground Railroad, where so many corpses gather around trees like strange fruit, landscape gives silent testimony in The Nickel Boys. Whitehead leads us circuitously through Elwood’s story, going back and forth between the 1960s and the present day to build a mystery that only unfurls at the end, but every detail he gives about the earth and the trees and the buildings is a reminder that all this evidence has been here, all along. But trees cannot speak, nor can dirt—and so the evidence they hold has gone unheard.

In his interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Whitehead said, “As I wrote more, I learned that having the focus on character first made my work better.” This lesson explains the deep interiority of The Nickel Boys. Historical facts are sprinkled lightly among Elwood’s detailed perceptions of his experiences. Truth in this novel takes on different forms: There’s historical data, drawn from the archive; there’s the evidence of landscape, the dirt and trees containing their bones and metal; and then there’s emotional truth, the true legacy of the Florida School’s survivors.

The White House Boys Organization are a real group of men who have spent the early decades of the twenty-first century trying to get people to listen to them. You can read their testimony at their website. They are not without enemies. For example, several Boys remember a one-armed man at the school named Troy Tidwell who particularly delighted in beating them. He is an old codger now, and his family completely rejects the allegations. “You’re just trying to ruin a good man’s life,” his ex-wife told the Tampa Bay Times. “Leave him alone!”

The president of the White House Boys Organization, Jerry Cooper, has taken a lie detector test to prove his memories of Tidwell’s abuse. Questions he answered “yes” to include: “Did Mr. Troy Tidwell administer to you more than 30 lashes with the leather strap? Did Mr. Troy Tidwell and two other staff members administer to you more than 100 lashes with the leather strap? Were you instructed to wrap towels around your body so you would not bloody your bed sheets?” Cooper’s lie detector test is not admissible in court, but his affirmative answers (he passed) echo the memories of many other former students.

To every reviewer that found The Underground Railroad gratuitous in its violence, unnecessary in its portrayals of flayed flesh and rape, The Nickel Boys offers a riposte: All of this is true. Colson Whitehead is a bard of bygone pain, but this is not “activist” literature. It is simply the past, whether or not the reader wants to know about it. If the reader turns away, then that says more about them than Whitehead. The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it burns with outrageous truth.