It’s startling to realise how much human suffering can be conveniently ignored by the general population when governmental institutions neatly shield this injustice away. Colson Whitehead’s new novel centres around the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Florida in the early 1960s. It was purportedly to school and train these teenagers to become “honorable and honest men” but in reality it abused, exploited and (sometimes) killed them. While the civil rights movement was valiantly working to end segregation the boys in this institution were still divided into white and black dormitories. Unsurprisingly, the white inmates were given better food and supplies as well as less labour and better treatment. Whitehead tells the story of this barbaric facility by focusing on the lives of several inmates – most notably an intelligent young man named Elwood who finds himself imprisoned there after he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many people I found Whitehead’s previous novel “The Underground Railroad” incredibly moving. This new novel is stylistically different but just as impactful. Not only does it tell a harrowing tale of racism and institutional abuse, but has a gripping plot with a surprising and moving ending.
One of the most heartrending things about this novel is that Whitehead based it on a real institution called the Dozier School for Boys. After this school closed down an anthropological survey in 2012 discovered the remains of dozens of bodies outside the cemetery grounds. Whitehead fictionizes the back stories of several boys who might have ended up in these unmarked graves while also depicting the atmosphere of the civil rights movement at that time. Elwood is a studious young man who aspires to go to college, but finds himself drawn into the protests after being inspired by a record of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches and his teacher Mr Hill who was a former freedom rider. Through Elwood’s perspective we experience all the conflicted feelings of people had to choose between looking after their own self-interest or joining to fight for a bigger cause. Of course, when he realizes how inhibited his life would be given the current social systems it leaves him little choice because “It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense.”
It’s incredibly moving how Whitehead depicts Elwood’s good intentions and his stalwart belief based off from Dr King’s words that if he maintains his integrity and diligently works for progress things will change for the better. But this is severely tested when Elwood finds himself locked in the Nickel Academy where there is no reason or justice – only an obtuse system where severe and entirely unjustified punishment can be randomly enacted. He observes “Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.” The institution is riddled with corruption and incompetence from the administration to the guards to the medical staff. The place is given a lick of paint and congenial veneer whenever any state inspection is due. There’s a sense that over many decades the abuse and prejudice has become so systematic no one in a position of power even thinks to question it.
This is extended further when Elwood and another boy are loaned out to the local population to perform unpaid work as well as deliver governmental supplies to local businesses which were intended to feed, clothe, educate and entertain the incarcerated boys. It meant civilians and businesses outside the institution directly benefited from the maltreatment and suffering of these young black men. In this way Whitehead’s novel makes me question in what ways ordinary people are complacent in the exploitation of others. It’s also a poignant reminder of how brutally people suffered during segregation in America which is something which should be obvious but as one character notes it is “hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be.” But outside of these larger issues, this is novel which vividly and skilfully tells the stories of several characters trapped in a brutal system in a way which is rousing and memorable.