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Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys”

The Nickel Boys

“This or this?”

In Colson Whitehead’s (2019) nauseating, haunting novel The Nickel Boys, one should not skirt over this question, posed to Elwood Curtis, the novel’s protagonist, at a routine eye exam. This or this? becomes not only a framing device for the narrative arc of the novel, but the central question.

The Nickel Boys is a novel about what we choose to see – individually, collectively, socially, historically, and contemporaneously. It is a novel about ideas. It is a novel about responsibility: for injustice, justice, human dignity, and most importantly by the end, who lives, who dies, and our own complicity and responsibility in such life and death decisions through This or this?

This or this took me back to graduate school, a course called “Traditions of Inquiry.” Of the many life and trajectory changing lessons learned in that course, one I most vividly remember centered on the question of truth. There is Truth with a big T, and truth with a little t. The question we must ask ourselves as researchers is – which (T)(t)ruth we choose to see, to measure, to pursue. This or this reminded me of this important distinction. This (Truth with a big T) or this (truth with a little t)?

Here are some ways I see This or this playing out in the novel.

  1. Nonviolence or violence?

The novel is bookended by two major Civil Rights movements of the contemporary period: the Black Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, and though not explicitly mentioned by name, the Black Lives Matter movement of contemporary times.

Elwood Curtis is inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent Civil Rights activism. In Part I of the book, Elwood grows into a Civil Rights activist – “he wanted to enlist. He had no choice” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 22). Here, Whitehead plays with the tensions of King’s nonviolent approach to Civil Rights, specifically through use of the word enlist. Civil Rights is a war to be won, despite the nonviolent rhetoric inspiring Elwood. Any student of the Civil Rights movement knows the tension between nonviolence and violence thread their way through movement leaders and organizations such as SNCC, SCLC, and the Black Panthers.

Elwood is no different. Following a particularly gruesome and unjust incident at The Nickel Academy, Elwood wrestles with an emerging theory: “Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 85). Elwood has thoughts of violence cross his mind more than once. “The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 195). He begins plotting the poisoning of some of the school’s house and headmasters; he imagines revenge on Spencer, the main head of the school.

But Elwood never abandons his nonviolent idealism: “Still, he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 195).

This or this?

  1. Go or stay?

This is perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of the novel, and when you look for it, the question is everywhere.

Like Whitehead’s (2016) previous novel The Underground Railroad, this is a novel about running away. The parallels are part of what makes the novel so haunting. Not much changed for Black people between slavery, the modern Civil Rights movement, and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. All the boys at The Nickel Academy must make this decision about whether to stay at the school – with its violence, sexual abuse, and dilapidated conditions – or run.

“It was crazy to run and crazy not to run. How could a boy look past the school’s property line, see that free and living world beyond, and not contemplate a dash to freedom? To write one’s own story for once. To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity.” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 146).

The choice made by Elwood and Turner becomes the focal point of Part III of the novel.

But going or staying comes in many other forms throughout the novel. Elwood’s parents decide to go, abandoning him to his grandmother Harriett. Many of the children in the book are left parentless and without family, wards of the state with no place else to go.

And, those who survived The Nickel Academy must decide whether to go back or stay away. This we learn in the prologue of the novel, and it frames the epilogue to close the novel.

This or this?

  1. Remember or forget

Whitehead’s novel ultimately asks us to confront memory. Will we choose to remember or forget? Sadly, the fictional accounts in this novel are drawn from real life experiences of boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys from 1900 – 2011. We must, of course, Remember because not much has changed. Just this year, Illinois has had to confront modern day solitary confinement of children in schools. For those who read the novel, solitary confinement becomes a central turning point of The Nickel Boys near the end of the novel. Schools become prisons.

We could choose to forget, but the work of authors like Whitehead is to singe these stories into our cultural memory. The past is never far removed for the characters in the novel – many who survive The Nickel Academy go on to lead difficult lives, traumatized by the violence, assault, rape, and other inhumane practices at the school.

Most people in our culture do not like to confront the difficult truths about the past. We must.

This or this?

Be Destroyed.

This novel destroyed me. By the end, I could not stop crying. I was nauseated. I am haunted. It is incredibly difficult to read. Certainly, this is because of my connection to education, and my awareness of how schools have been used throughout history to dehumanize and impart violence onto people and communities. Educators simply must read this book. It should be required reading for anyone in teacher preparation programs, and I continue to advocate that literature might give educators some of their greatest and most important preparatory lessons.

Elwood and Turner are fictional, but they are also real. This too contributed to the novel destroying me. Whitehead has never been, in my estimation, great at writing characters with depth. I rarely can connect to the characters in his novels, and truth be told, the same was true for much of this novel. One begins to feel some semblance of Elwood in Part I, but this quickly dissipates as the novel progresses. Turner never really developed for me as a character. He is present but not overly complex.

Until the end.

Sometimes the bibliophiles in my life will have a debate: if you are a reading a book and not connecting with the plot or the characters, should you continue reading to the end? Some readers argue NO, because there is no need to pursue that which you find uninteresting, disturbing, or flat. There is plenty to read.

But I have never been of this mind. The instance is rare when I will discard a book mid-way through. It was never a question with this book. Though the plot is disturbing, The Nickel Boys and its story intrigued me. I knew and know that I needed this novel in my life, most especially because it is based on real life events and people. I powered through my growing irritation with shallow character development because the story was important. The novel is beautifully constructed, despite its difficult subject matter.

Then, the Epilogue. The Epilogue changed my whole relationship to Elwood and Turner. I do not know how Whitehead did it, but the Epilogue is a master class in complexifying character development at the denouement, if one can even call the Epilogue that in this case. To readers unsure of this book, or those who may not want to read through to the end, I implore you to finish the book. Do not read ahead. Let the Epilogue come to you precisely when it should…and allow yourself to be destroyed.

Masterful, Colson.

And, Thank You.

Whitehead, C. (2016). The underground railroad. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Whitehead, C. (2019).  The nickel boys. New York, NY: Doubleday.

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