I did manage to squeeze in an hour of sightseeing while in D.C. this past July. Bill and I went to the National Archives Museum where the Constitution is housed. There’s also a sobering and powerful exhibit in the museum that highlights how minorities and people of color have often been denied and barred from exercising the rights guaranteed by the very documents housed in the museum. I stood rapt in front of vintage video of African Americans marching side by side down the streets of D.C. as Dr. King spoke to Congress about the injustices of the Jim Crow laws.
It just so happened that I was reading Colson Whitehead’s new book, The Nickel Boys, at the time. It’s a stunning and captivating new novel. The main character, Elwood Curtis, is a smart, hard-working, idealistic, young black man who believes fervently in the words of Dr. King. In a devastating series of events that reflect the horror of Jim Crow laws in the south, Elwood, though innocent, ends up sentenced to doing time in a gruesome prison, disguised as a “reform school,” for young offenders.
The novel is inspired by the real story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Whitehead first heard of the place in 2014 when he read reports in the Tampa Bay Times about archaeology students from the University of South Florida who had discovered unmarked grave sites near campus. Forensic studies showed that these individuals had been grotesquely tortured, beaten, and killed. There are many survivors from the actual school, and you can see their stories online at officialwhithouseboys.org.
Here’s what Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles has to say about Whitehead’s latest book:
“Early in the novel, the pages feel damp with dramatic irony. At the end of his first day at Nickel Academy, Elwood falls asleep to a bone-chilling sound that we know will soon flail his tender hopes. But that’s no matter: This isn’t really a story of suspense. We already come to this story knowing what lurks in the vestry, the dormitory, the detention center, the jail cell — in any closed and unsupervised place where people are subjected to the whims of perverse men. But Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. He’s superb at creating synecdoches of pain, such as a reference to a fractured wrist chained to a tree. We know in our bones what happened to the rest of that vanished body.
The novel’s real focus, though, is not this relentless flow of abuse but Elwood’s reaction to it. The boy keeps thinking of King’s remarks about ‘the degradations of Jim Crow and the need to transform that degradation into action.’ Elwood tells himself, ‘I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it.’ He persists in imagining that he can chisel each roadblock into another steppingstone along his inspiring path beyond adversity.
How, the novel wonders, will a young man flush with King’s words and imprinted with the nobility of the U.S. Constitution respond to the repudiation of every decent expectation, to what Whitehead describes as ‘indiscriminate spite’? How, in other words, can African Americans endure in a country that preaches such idealism but delivers such misery?”
It made a powerful experience to see the actual documents of our country displayed in our nation’s capital while reading such a hauntingly, brilliant novel showing how those promises have yet to be fully realized.