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‘This Sense of Somebody-ness’

Colson Whitehead; drawing by Karl Stevens
Colson Whitehead; drawing by Karl Stevens

Elwood Curtis is a junior at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida, when we meet him in Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys. It’s 1962, and Elwood’s prized possession is a Martin Luther King at Zion Hill record that his grandmother, Harriet, bought him for a dime outside the Richmond Hotel, the fancy establishment where she works. He listens to King’s speeches and thinks about them often: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you,” King says, his voice reverberating in Elwood’s head:

But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.

Elwood lives with his grandmother in the predominantly black neighborhood of Frenchtown. His parents left him with her when he was six and moved to California without saying goodbye; he hasn’t heard from them since. Now a teenager, he likes to hang out at Marconi’s tobacco store. He has “a curious habit where he read every comic front to back before he bought it, and he bought every one he touched.” When Mr. Marconi asks why he goes through all that if he’s going to buy them whether they are good or not, Elwood says, “Just making sure.” But a more telling sign of his personality is that he buys what he touches because that’s the right thing to do. Elwood lives on a moral high ground. He’s a searcher for the best in mankind. And so, even though his school is still segregated eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, and his textbooks are filled with racist graffiti from the white students who passed them down, he’s filled with hope:

When he was little, he kept lookout on the dining room of the Richmond Hotel. It had been closed to his race and one day it would open. He waited and waited…. The recognition he sought went beyond brown skin—he was looking for someone who looked like him, for someone to claim as kin. For others to claim him as kin, those who saw the same future approaching…. Those ready to commit their weight to the great lever and move the world.

Elwood, we are repeatedly told, is “as good as anybody”—a phrase of King’s that comes from a speech Elwood especially connects to, one that “even made him feel like a member of the King family,” in which King counsels his young daughter to “resist the lure of hatred and bitterness” when she is faced with discrimination. After Mr. Marconi offers him a job in the tobacco store, Elwood gives half his salary to his grandmother, for the household, and saves the other half for college. One day, he sees two of his childhood friends stealing candy from the store, and he orders: “Put it back.” The boys jump him on his way home, leaving him with a black eye and a broken bike. Standing up for what’s right, even if it means squealing on his peers, is a trait for which he will get punished even more gravely as time goes by.

At his public high school, Elwood’s dapper, bow-tie-wearing history teacher, Mr. Hill, is a freedom rider. Elwood joins the movement to protest the South’s Jim Crow laws, demonstrating with students from Florida A&M in front of the segregated local movie theater. He thinks his grandmother will be “proud of him for stepping up,” but she has already lost several members of her family to white supremacist violence, and she is afraid. She gives him the silent treatment and he backs away from public demonstrations. This does not stop him from writing letters on “the racial question” to the Tallahassee Register and The Chicago Defender under a pseudonym. The boy has been bitten by the 1960s’ bug of possibility. He’s committed, he’s serious, he should be a leader. A child who has been left by both parents, for no apparent reason other than their selfishness, discovers the selfless agapē love King describes in his speeches, perhaps to fill the hole that his attentive grandmother cannot fill on her own.

In the summer of 1963 Mr. Hill walks into Marconi’s with an opportunity: a chance for Elwood to take college courses while still in high school. Even better, the courses are free. Heading to college that fall—his bike, as mentioned, broken—Elwood has a seven-mile walk ahead of him. He decides to hitchhike and, Whitehead writes, “a colored driver” in a nice car picks him up. Law enforcement sees two black men in a fancy vehicle and gets involved: a police officer pulls them over and arrests them for driving what he says is a stolen car. If you or I passed Elwood on the street, we might see a young man full of potential—one of those kids who has glimpsed the promises that society has to offer and who’s ready to do his part to fulfill those promises. But the law enforcement officer, and then the judge, do not see Elwood that way. Elwood is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, and he ends up in reform school, at Nickel Academy, like that. The capture takes up less than a page, but the consequences affect the rest of Elwood’s life. The body of the novel is a heartbreaking tale of what happens to vulnerable youths at the mercy of a system that lacks imagination and compassion.

The Nickel Boys was inspired by a six-part exposé by Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, published in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in 2009. Entitled “For Their Own Good,” its subject was the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which first opened in 1900 as the Florida School for Boys and was finally shut down in 2011 after a formal investigation. Located in the panhandle town of Marianna, about sixty miles west of Tallahassee, it was by 1956 the largest boys’ school in the country, with 698 students and a staff of 128. It remained segregated until 1968, with the campus for white students referred to as “Department One” and the campus for black and other nonwhite students referred to as “Department Two.”

The school was a violent and dangerous place throughout its history. In 1903 and 1913 there were reports of children being bound in irons and violently beaten. In 1914 a fire killed six children and two staff members while the superintendent and other staff were partying in town. A report in 1915 by a Jackson County grand jury concluded that “the young men having direct supervision of the boys were immoral and not proper persons to lead wayward boys toward reformation.” According to Montgomery and Moore, “Trouble continued with each passing year, from reports of inadequate medical care to the murder of two students by peers,” and yet “outsiders had no idea” of the abuses taking place. The school was rarely held accountable.

In March 1958 Dr. Eugene Byrd, a former psychologist at the Dozier School for Boys, testified before a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency about the school’s use of corporal punishment. After receiving numerous complaints from students who “would come in with a great deal of fear, anxiety and sometimes panic,” he explained, he and a colleague had requested to observe the disciplinary measures to which they were subjected. He described “a system of punishment involving beating with a leather strap” and referred to a place called the White House, where the punishment was delivered:

Mr. Mitler [special counsel for the subcommittee]: What did the building look like?

Dr. Byrd: A very small building, formerly used for solitary confinement…. It would be approximately a 20 by l0-foot square, and is located next to the dining hall. As I indicated, the boys are taken there once a week on Saturday right before the lunch period….[The] room in which they are beat consists of a cot on which they lay down. They are told to hold the head rail and not yell out nor to move. They are beaten by the director of the department, not the superintendent of the school. The superintendent does witness each beating.

Mr. Mitler: Are the blows severe or mild?

Dr. Byrd: The blows are very severe. They are dealt with a great deal of force with a full arm swing over his head and down, with a strap, a leather strap approximately a half inch thick and about 10 inches long with a wooden formed handle. Each boy received a minimum of 15. All boys reported this, and the times I witnessed it, there was no boy who received less than 15 at that time. As I indicated and have a material chart here, I was interested in who was getting these beatings, since there was a very young boy at this time, about age 10, who was unable to hold the bed and received approximately 22 lashes.

Senator Kefauver: Go ahead, sir.

Dr. Byrd: …After this is done the boy is told to get up, shake hands with the superintendent, and go on out in a group. This constitutes the actual punishment.

For their newspaper series, Montgomery and Moore conducted over a hundred hours of interviews with twenty-seven former students and reviewed more than eight thousand documents, including public records, incident reports, and grievances recorded by students. Testimonies from the surviving men, many of whom are now in their sixties and suffering from PTSD, refer to blood and parts of tongues they saw on the pillows in the White House. They were forced to bury their heads in the pillows while being beaten, to drown out their screams. They talk of how they had to wait in line to be pulled inside for their whippings, and how they could hear the screams of their classmates—details that Whitehead includes in The Nickel Boys.

In Whitehead’s novel, Elwood is introduced to the White House soon after he arrives. On his first night, while lying in bed, his head on a pillow that “smelled like vinegar,” he hears a terrifying sound. His mind quickly sorts through his very developed vocabulary and settles on the word torrential to describe it. He gets closer to that noise more quickly than he could have imagined—again, because of his dedication to doing the right thing. The next evening Elwood sees a “chuck” (a younger boy) being bullied by older boys and intervenes. But right can never be simple right in this world that, like all prisons, has its own rules. In this case, the “chuck” was playing his part in a dark ritual that he knew well. Elwood is an outsider. When he intervenes, a fight ensues, and a staff member catches Elwood in the midst of it. The superintendent and one of his henchmen come for Elwood in the dark of the night. That torrential noise, Elwood comes to learn when he is taken to the White House to be beaten, is a huge fan that the staff turns on to drown out the screams from the beatings. Elwood’s testicles are bruised when he wakes up in the morning.

Whitehead’s previous novel, The Underground Railroad, marked a departure from many of the themes of his earlier works—satire, alternate worlds, zombie fiction—toward a full engagement with race and American history. The main character, Cora, is a slave whose mother has abandoned her, who faces cruelty and violence throughout her life, and who develops a love of reading, even though books were contraband on most plantations—you could get killed if you were caught with them. The Nickel Boys seems like a companion to The Underground Railroad in its retelling of a moment in black American history, and its confrontation with this country’s violent past. Like Cora, Elwood has been abandoned by his parents and is owned—in his case, for all intents and purposes, by the state. His reform school is like a plantation in many ways: the boys are brutalized in the name of discipline and taken advantage of for their labor. Also like Cora, Elwood is a voracious reader. Reading for him is a sign of the promise of his future—a future that’s swiftly taken away when he is sent to Nickel. In both novels, Whitehead unflinchingly traps his characters in inescapable violence. The hells in which they live are eased only by quiet kindness and friendship.

Elwood adjusts to this nightmarish place, in part because he believes in the promises of society, offered openhandedly to some and held passively for others who work hard enough to grab them. When he was much younger he had worked in the kitchen of the hotel where his grandmother was employed. One day, a member of the kitchen crew showed up with a box of shiny leather-bound encyclopedias that a traveling salesman had left behind. They set up a dishwashing competition: whoever won would get the box of encyclopedias. Though only twelve years old, Elwood, through discipline and determination, beat his grown competitor by one dish. He carried the encyclopedias home and found them to be filled with empty pages. He had been duped. It was hard for him to go to work the next day and face them, but he did not let their actions mar his spirit.

Martin Luther King Jr. with his daughter Yolanda in their backyard, Atlanta, 1964
Flip Schulke/Corbis/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. with his daughter Yolanda in their backyard, Atlanta, 1964

Back then, Elwood believed in something he learns about from listening to Dr. King: dignity. For as long as he is at Nickel, he attempts to apply this basic hopefulness to his dilemma, invoking King’s words as he tries to make sense of his situation:

They had whipped Elwood. But he took the whipping and he was still here. There was nothing they could do that white people hadn’t done to black people before, were not doing at this moment somewhere in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, in broad daylight on a city street outside Woolworths. Or some anonymous country road with no one to tell the tale. They would whip him, whip him bad, but they couldn’t kill him, not if the government knew what was going on here….

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. If he didn’t have that, what did he have?

The center of the novel is Elwood’s friendship with another Nickel student, Jack Turner. As soon as they meet, Elwood notices Turner’s “eerie sense of self. The mess hall was loud with the rumble and roil of juvenile activity, but this boy bobbed in his own pocket of calm.” Turner knows his way around and seems to have figured out the system, managing to avoid conflicts with staff and other students. They start spending time together when Elwood is in the school hospital, recovering from his beating. Here, Whitehead gradually shifts focus to give us Turner’s view of Elwood:

Turner had never met a kid like Elwood before. Sturdy was the word he returned to, even though the Tallahassee boy looked soft, conducted himself like a goody-goody, and had an irritating tendency to preach. Wore eyeglasses you wanted to grind underfoot like a butterfly. He talked like a white college boy, read books when he didn’t have to, and mined them for uranium to power his own personal A-bomb. Still—sturdy.

At Nickel, classes are taught at a rudimentary level, with old editions of textbooks that Elwood remembers from first grade. The students are also required to do manual labor, including farming and brickmaking, on the school’s extensive property. Over time, Elwood and Turner prove themselves to be hard workers, and they get chosen to regularly accompany one of the staff members, Harper, off-campus to do errands. The errands are referred to as “Community Service,” but they amount to pulling up to the homes and restaurants of middle-class white people in town, many of whom are related to the men who run the school. There, they unload “cartons and crates of Nickel’s kitchen stores”—food and other supplies meant for the school’s black students. While Harper enjoys conjugal time with a woman in town, Elwood and Turner are so trusted that they are able to walk freely in the streets. And the work outside of the grounds of the school is not so bad either. While painting a gazebo, Turner says, “Beats cleaning the toilets. Beats cutting grass, if you ask me.” The bond between Elwood and Turner is what’s right in the dark world Whitehead paints. Their comradeship is the hope.

Adolescent development calls for unchaperoned time—finding out about the world in the company of friends. Though abandoned by his parents, Elwood has what modern-day sociologists and educational experts would call the requisite “caring adult”—his grandmother. Most of the other boys are not so lucky. It is difficult to read a book about young people and the abusive adults who are meant to take care of them without a protective clench of the jaw for that moment when sexual abuse will make itself evident. Sure enough, there are several instances of sexual abuse alluded to in the course of the novel, during Elwood’s time at the school and earlier. Some of the Nickel boys, just like some of the real-life Dozier boys, are pulled out of bed in the middle of the night by staff. Sometimes the staff are drunk, sometimes not. The existence of sexual abuse at Nickel is first introduced by Turner’s cool, passing reference to a place called Lovers’ Lane, located in the basement of the white schoolhouse on the other side of campus.

Another sinister place on the school grounds that Turner shows Elwood is “out back.” Past the laundry, next to the dilapidated horse stables, are two oaks with iron rings screwed into them:

“This is out back,” Turner said. “They say once in a while they take a black boy here and shackle him up to those. Arms spread out. Then they get a horse whip and tear him up.”

Elwood made two fists, then caught himself. “No white boys?”

“The White House, they got that integrated. This place is separate. They take you out back, they don’t bring you to the hospital. They put you down as escaped and that’s that, boy.”

“What about their family?”

“How many boys you know here got family? Or got family that cares about them? Not everyone is you, Elwood.”

Having family, whether in the Jim Crow South or now, cannot save a child from injustice if that family does not have education and significant resources. How many black kids from the Frenchtown section of Tallahassee ever had the clout and wherewithal to get themselves out of these situations? As bad as it is now, the United States of America had no public defenders until 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled on Gideon v. Wainwright. Elwood’s grandmother tries her best to help, but she doesn’t have the means to get Elwood released. And she doesn’t know about the White House beating he suffered—he’s too ashamed to tell her when she visits, and afraid that “her heart wouldn’t be able to take it.”

Things don’t end well for many of the children in The Nickel Boys. One of the more devastating tales is that of Griff, a talented boxer who is cognitively disabled. He’s huge. He’s black. He’s set to fight a white boy. The match is a big event that dignitaries from town come to watch and bet on. The prowess of athletes has always symbolized hope for the black community. Anticipating what Griff will do to the white boy is one of the black students’ few reliefs from the daily abuses and insults they endure at Nickel: “That white boy’s gonna be toothless as my old granny,” they say to one another. “The witch doctor can give him a whole bucket of aspirin and he’ll still have a headache. The Ku Klux Klan’s gonna be crying under their hoods all week.” After Griff fails to go along with the school director’s plan to throw the fight, because he has trouble counting, we learn why the school has a cemetery.

Montgomery and Moore’s exposé on the abuses at Dozier, which Whitehead brought attention to with his novel, does not stand alone in shedding light on this criminal treatment of children. At least two books about the school have been written by survivors, including They Told Me Not to Tell, in which Johnny Lee Gaddy recounts being physically and sexually abused at Dozier, and The Boys of the Dark, written by Robin Gaby Fisher in collaboration with two former students, Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley. There’s also an enormous forensic project led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida, which began in 2012 and included the excavation of the Dozier school cemetery in 2013. The report was delivered in 2016:

During the course of this investigation, 55 graves were excavated. It was determined that not all of the victims who died in a dormitory fire in 1914 were buried together in the area of the Boot Hill Burial Ground. It was hypothesized that more of the burned remains may have been buried on the site of the former dormitory…. In addition to 51 sets of human remains located at Boot Hill, burned bone fragments were recovered from the burned dorm site. To date, we have found 17 families (or 33% of our missing person’s pool). Efforts to determine the possible identity of those beyond our missing person pool is being assisted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office…and a team of volunteer genealogists. We have made 7 positive identifications and 14 presumptive identifications. An additional 7 families are waiting for a match.

The extraordinary work of Dr. Kimmerle and her team is evidence of how science increasingly plays a part in issues of justice and human rights. In this case it has proved that many more students died at the school than was ever admitted, and that many of those deaths were violent ones. But assessments of the real-life brutality committed against the boys at the Dozier school started more than a hundred years before the facility was officially closed on June 30, 2011. What took so long?

The town of Marianna has a very dark human rights history: on the steps of the Marianna Court House, in 1934, the body of twenty-three-year-old Claude Neal was displayed after he had been tortured and lynched secretly by a white mob—accused of rape but with nothing actually linking him to the crime—and then hanged a second time at the request of a crowd of more rioting whites.

As I read The Nickel Boys, I thought about some young men I interviewed a few years ago at the Maya Angelou Academy, a charter school inside the $47 million New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Maryland, which replaced the notoriously dysfunctional juvenile correctional facility Oak Hill Academy in 2009. Founded by James Forman Jr. and David Domenici, the Maya Angelou Academy is fueled by the recognition that, in Domenici’s words, “the kids most at risk need the highest quality programming, but they’ve gotten the worst.” This should be obvious, but there’s little political or societal will to address it. Nonetheless, New Beginnings looked remarkably better than most juvenile facilities I visited while writing a play about the school-to-prison pipeline.

I doubt that there are many White Houses in our juvenile facilities right now. On paper, corporal punishment is not acceptable anymore. (Although surely it still happens. And in places like the Maya Angelou Academy, there is a genuine effort to supplant old models with good teachers, caring adults, and meaningful curricula.) Technology allows surveillance to take the place of some of the discipline that previously was limited to corporal and other forms of punishment. Everything is seen—juvenile offenders are in the panopticon. At the Maya Angelou Academy, I saw inspirational quotes painted artistically on the walls, and the boys strolled to class neatly dressed in khakis and tucked-in golf shirts. The acoustics were good, and the classroom areas were carpeted—there was none of the horrible echo of noise I’ve heard in other juvenile halls and prisons.

Turner in The Nickel Boys reminds me of one of the young men I interviewed at the Maya Angelou Academy. Malik was handsome and self-possessed, cool and commanding. Still in high school, he had been in and out of juvenile institutions several times. At one point during the interview, he nodded toward something happening behind me. It was a fight that had started and was about to blow up. The young man sat in his chair, perfectly still, very much as I imagine Turner would in such a situation, as if the chair were a throne apart from the mayhem. Here’s why I assume that cameras there are plentiful. As the fight accelerated, staff appeared from every direction, walking calmly. No alarms went off. No one yelled. The staff simply watched, and at a certain moment one of the men, who weighed well over two hundred pounds, put his weight on the boys, gently but firmly pressing them to the ground until their bodies flattened and the fight ceased.

Whitfield Lovell's Kin VII (Scent of Magnolia), 2011;
Collection of Julia J. Norell/© Whitfield Lovell/DC Moore Gallery, New York
Whitfield Lovell: Kin VII (Scent of Magnolia), 2011; from Whitfield Lovell: Kin, published in 2016 by Skira Rizzoli

But the staff were also skilled at seeing. When the men arrived to break up the fight, my team and I were quickly whisked away and locked in a nearby office. But before they took us out of harm’s way, my cameraman, always quick on his feet, dismounted one of our small cameras and put it on the floor in a corner—expecting that though we were out of sight, the camera would continue to film the aftermath of the fight. When we returned to New York and looked at the footage, we saw a female staffer approach the camera, throw her coat over it and say into the camera’s microphone, “Sorry.”

While reading The Nickel Boys I also thought about D’Sean, another young man I talked with at the Maya Angelou Academy. Increasingly, Americans have become aware of the moral and monetary cost of incarcerating more humans than any other country on earth. It’s one issue around which Democrats and Republicans agree. It’s too expensive, and we are wasting human potential. We must shut down some of these prisons. But what will happen to people once they are released? D’Sean addressed this in my interview with him, in a very memorable way. Like Turner in The Nickel Boys, D’Sean had figured out how to function inside the juvenile detention system with as few ripples as possible. At the very end of an hourlong interview, he sat forward and whispered to me as if I were not a stranger but a confidante. He spoke with apparent sincerity and openness.

D’Sean asked, “Can I tell you how I feel—on the ‘committed’ thing?” He explained to me that when you get “committed” (sent to jail or locked up in a juvenile detention center), you are supplied with a tutor, a job, and “mental,” meaning mental health services. But he said that once your commitment expires,

They done with you. DYS [Department of Youth Services], they not there for you no more. You not under the government no more. It’s like, to get through life, I need them services, cause it really, it really helps me.

D’Sean told me that he wished he could stay committed until he was twenty-one. The only drawback, he said, is that when you’re locked up as an adult, they can send you wherever they want: Utah, Nevada, Nebraska—far away. In his current juvenile detention facility, all the resources were there for you to be successful—all you had to do was take advantage of them. That success would be very difficult to maintain in the real world:

But it’s like, once you don’t have them services, you back out on the street doin’ the same thing that you was doin’ to get yourself back in a place like this: stealin’ cars, robbin’ people, sellin’ drugs. Them things that could lead you back in the same predicament, even worse. You in the community lookin’ up to a person you really don’t want to look up to, askin’ him, “Can I git some drugs so I can sell ’em and git some money?”

D’Sean was very worried about what it would be like to leave juvenile detention: “Keep lookin’ over my back worryin’ about when the police gonna ride up and grab me, something like that.”

I hope D’Sean reads The Nickel Boys. I think he would be inspired by what Turner does with his life after Nickel. Colson Whitehead understands how reform schools and juvenile halls leave a person marked for life: “That’s what the school did to a boy. It didn’t stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.”

In The Nickel Boys, Elwood repeatedly reflects on what is seen and what is invisible. “This or this?” his eye doctor asked at checkups before he was sent to Nickel,

a choice between two lenses of different power. Elwood never ceased to marvel how you could walk around and get used to seeing only a fraction of the world. Not knowing you only saw a sliver of the real thing.

We think about race in America in glimpses. Multiple lenses are needed to illuminate the long histories of injustice, oppression, and cruelty in this country. The Nickel Boys takes place in the Jim Crow era but has definite resonance now. Its particular look back is like a jazz riff on contemporary inequity. It’s a tale well told about our society’s lack of concern for those who are poor, those lacking caring guardians, those lacking adequate education. The soul-searing indignities and abuses imagined and expertly described in The Nickel Boys still occur in the juvenile justice system, particularly for young people of color.

As heartbreaking as The Nickel Boys is, it is sometimes funny. And, importantly, it is beautiful. I hope this profoundly sad but elegant novel causes people with means to grow more curious about kids living with few protections against poverty. I hope they are moved to look carefully at our times and come to better understand the young people sitting in juvie right now, or those who are headed there, countering poverty with the fast money that comes from running drugs or selling their bodies, like some of those I’ve interviewed over the years.

One of Whitehead’s characters is a survivor of Nickel whom he follows to adulthood. He is a black man who decides to give his testimony at a reunion of predominantly white Nickel boys fifty years after he was incarcerated there. Even after all these years, he and the other survivors are still looking over their shoulders:

An ambulance sped by outside and in the dark mirror behind the liquor he had a vision of himself outlined a bright red, a shimmering aura that marked him as an outsider. Everybody saw it…. They’d always be on the lam, no matter how they got out of that school.

Whitehead based the survivors’ website he describes in The Nickel Boys on a website put together by the real Dozier survivors: officialwhitehouseboys.org. His novel does a powerful job of telling a story inspired by their experiences, but the real story of the Florida School for Boys/Arthur G. Dozier School was also told by the men who’d really been there, most of whom are still suffering. If their testimony has not yet inspired others to come forward and tell their own stories, it will. The divisions of Jim Crow still remain, but they are muted enough, in this case, that white and black men are telling the story on the same website, and in the same books.