Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Nickel Boys


I can’t do this, I thought as I closed the book I was reading and pushed it away. I can’t read this book. What do I know about being Black? The book, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, is a novel about a studious young man who is accused of a crime he did not commit. By the end of the third chapter, he’d been arrested, sentenced, and headed for a reform school where unimaginable things were about to happen to him. Except, I could imagine them only too well and was afraid to go on reading.

But then, haven’t I ever been accused and punished for something for which I was innocent. Of course, I have. Hasn’t everyone? If this is true, reading this book shouldn’t upset me. It should make me angry and want to right a wrong, I thought as I slowly picked up the book, opened it, and continued reading.

This time I was able to get through to the middle of the book because of the way Whitehead wrote, because of the promise of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow - or, at least, of a rainbow at the end of a storm.

Whitehead calls the reform school in this book, The Nickel Academy, named for a former director, although the students believe that it is so named because “their lives weren’t worth five cents.” 

The Nickel Academy is a fictionalized version of the very real Dozier School which operated in Florida for more than 100 years until an investigation exposed the horrors -  rape, beatings, and a secret graveyard with the unidentified remains of more than 50 students - that were perpetrated inside its walls by those who were supposed to be teaching reform.

By now I have gotten almost to the middle of this story. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I can finish it. There is something physical I feel while reading about man’s inhumanity to man, something that rises up from the earth, into my feet, and up through my body until I am almost doubled over with pain.

Stop! I tell myself. Finish it. 

I procrastinate. I whine until, crying, I pick up the book and continue reading. Outside, it is a wintery night. I can hear the wind rattling a windowpane as I read deep into the night until I come, finally, to the end of both the book and the storm. I couldn't sleep after that. I had to shake it off  - or let it sink in. I'm not sure which.

In the morning I rise up and walk to a window. Outside, the earth is blanketed with snow - a symbol of stillness, of peace, and - hope.

My memoir, Dear Elvis, can be found at





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