THE NICKEL BOYS
By Colson Whitehead
Though the story had been hiding in plain sight for decades, it was not until 2014 that Colson Whitehead stumbled upon the inspiration for his haunted and haunting new novel, “The Nickel Boys.” As he explains in his acknowledgments, he learned through The Tampa Bay Times about archaeology students at the University of South Florida who were digging up and trying to identify the remains of students who had been tortured, raped and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard, at the state-run Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna. Dozier’s century-plus reign of terror ended only in 2011, and graves were still being discovered after Whitehead’s novel went to press. New evidence disinterred in March may raise the fatality count above 80. We will never learn the exact number, any more than we will ever have a full accounting of all the other hidden graves where crushed black bodies have been disposed of like garbage since the birth of the nation.
In “The Nickel Boys,” the house of horrors is fictionally memorialized as the Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Fla. The discovery of an unmarked graveyard is an inconvenience both for the real estate company developing an office park on the site and for the state’s attorney, who thought his investigation into abuse at the academy was closed. “The whole damned place,” Whitehead writes in the deadpan voice of his prologue, needed to be “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.” Such, after all, is the American way: Acknowledge (usually) the country’s foundational sin of slavery, recognize (sometimes) the serial crimes that have been committed against black Americans ever since, celebrate the intervening signposts of hope (Supreme Court decisions, civil rights laws, a “post-racial” presidency), then move on until the next conflagration prompts calls for a new “national conversation on race.” If an African-American writer like Whitehead, whose last novel was “The Underground Railroad,” didn’t hear of the Dozier School until 2014, imagine how many other such stories still remain hidden and awaiting exposure, whether literally buried under faceless contemporary gentrification (e.g.: the mass graves of the hundreds of blacks slaughtered in the Tulsa massacre of 1921) or figuratively buried in the national collective consciousness of denial. Nickel “was just one place,” Whitehead reminds us late in this book, “but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds” of others, “scattered across the land like pain factories.” Like Nickel, they’ll be exhumed only if there is “anyone who cares to listen.”
Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. While race and its intersection with the American mythos have informed his fiction since his debut, “The Intuitionist” (1998), and played out in an eclectic variety of novelistic genres since (from the coming-of-age reverie “Sag Harbor” to the zombie-populated “Zone One”), he has now produced back-to-back historical novels, in the broadest definition of that term, that in sum offer an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism.
The books feel like a mission, and it’s an essential one. In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or “I can’t breathe”), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell. Witness, for instance, the “Twilight Zone”-esque Museum of Natural Wonders in “The Underground Railroad,” where the repeatedly brutalized runaway teenage slave Cora, in a fleeting simulacrum of freedom, is enlisted to act before white viewers in glass-enclosed dioramas sanitizing “Life on the Slave Ship” and a “typical day” on the plantation. “Truth,” Whitehead writes, “was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” In this writer’s powerful reckoning, those who enable historical amnesia are accessories to the crimes against humanity whose erasure they facilitate.