Colson Whitehead on the True Story Behind The Nickel Boys

Posted on 25th June 2020 by Mark Skinner
Double Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead's latest, incendiary novel takes the real-life Florida reform school as a jumping-off point to explore the tensions inherent in the US civil rights movement. In this piece, Whitehead details the true events behind The Nickel Boys, Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month for July, and explains why he felt compelled to write the novel.

The Florida School for Boys opened in Marianna, Florida on January 1, 1900. It was New Year’s Day, the start of a new century, with all the optimism that entails. The idea behind the reformatory school was an enlightened one: how can we rehabilitate young offenders, instead of locking them up with adult criminals? By providing education, life skills, job training, alternating classroom days with workdays. The school was self-sufficient, its own world, populated not just by juvenile delinquents but by orphans and wards of the state – kids with nowhere else to go. On its 1,400 acres, they raised cattle, maintained several farms, a dairy. The printing plant and brick-making factory provided services across the state, and the annual Christmas pageant, with its elaborate light displays and miles of miniature train tracks, attracted visitors from as far away as Georgia and Alabama. 

Disturbing reports made their way to the outside world. Students told of violent beatings, state investigators shared their own grim findings about unhealthy conditions, and periodic reforms were enacted. The administration stopped leasing students to local businesses, for example, as sometimes the boys ended up dead. Corporal punishment and the use of dark cells – solitary confinement – was discontinued. They disassembled the sweat boxes, the iron cages where students were baked in the sun for attitude adjustment. 

They renamed the place a few times, as if a new brand might help. The Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Always, over time, the cruelty resumed. The dark cells reopened. A concrete utility shed called the White House became the new home of the “spankings,” where boys were whipped with a leather strap called Black Beauty. The students nicknamed the White House “The Ice Cream Factory,” because you came out with bruises of every color. The boys continued to tell their stories of sexual abuse, torture, and even homicide, for decades and decades, until state investigations closed the place down in 2011. 

I first heard of Dozier in 2014, when the national media picked up the story. The state wanted to sell the land and they exhumed the bodies in the official graveyard for identification and relocation. They discovered other, unmarked grave sites, and bodies that testified to horrific violence. Blunt trauma to skulls, shotgun pellets in ribcages. Boys had disappeared. Their families had been told they’d run off, when in fact they were in the ground. A survivor’s organization, The White House Boys, is made up of men who had been at Dozier forty, fifty years before, who share accounts of their time there. 

Like I said, it was the summer of 2014. Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, had been shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri by a white policeman. Eric Garner was choked to death in Staten Island by another white policeman. With the rise of cell-phone cameras, everyday acts of violence against black people were being recorded, but the devices didn’t capture a sudden spike in incidents, they merely recorded the standard level of brutality. We had the technology to see it now, the things that happen daily, the way a new telescope doesn’t discover new galaxies, it only renders visible the ancient stars that have always been there. 

Despite the evidence, no one is ever held accountable. Dozier provided more proof of this terrible reality. For more than a hundred years, this school had been in the business of mangling the lives of young boys, and the perpetrators went unpunished. They retired, lived long happy lives, and in some cases received “Citizen of the Year” awards from the community. 

Most of the White House Boys who came forward were white, but the majority of the students were African American. I wondered about the black boys, and what a novel inspired by Dozier might look like. 

When I began writing twenty years ago, I’d sometimes get anxious about whether something I was putting down on the page would make sense to other people. A description of a place, or an emotion, a way of looking at something. I’m such weirdo, frankly, that it seemed unlikely that other people could relate to what I was talking about. Of course that’s the writer’s job – to find the right words so that other people can see it the same way you do. But there’s also the other thing, which is that the world is pretty large. Seven billion people. If it’s true for you, I thought, odds are it’s true for someone else, no matter how alone you feel sometimes. If there’s one other person who sees it the same way, there are dozens, thousands, and if you can hit upon the right combination of words, maybe thousands and thousands of people can see it the way you see it. And this calmed my nerves when I sat down to write.

But there’s a flip side. If something is happening in one place, it’s happening in other places as well. If there is one Dozier, there are dozens of reform schools where the same tragedies unfold. Maybe it’s not a reform school, but an orphanage. A home for unwed mothers in Ireland. A residential school in Canada, where indigenous children are ripped from their families so that they can be tutored in white culture. Or it’s a for-profit incarceration camp on our southern border, where refugee children sleep in cages. It’s any place where a culture of impunity reigns, destroys, ruins. That’s the thing about numbers – they calculate our common humanity, and multiply our human weakness. 

I had a place. I needed characters. Sometimes a fragment of my personality makes its way into my characters, or the supporting characters, and sometimes not. Cora, the protagonist of The Underground Railroad, has the least amount of me in her, which is probably why people like that book the most. (I’m not complaining, but can’t help but notice.) To create the two heroes for The Nickel Boys, I borrowed from my own internal dilemma. The last two-and-a-half years have been a time of great division in America – these divisions and disputes have always been with us, but sometimes they’re closer to the surface. The world is often quite terrible. I’d like to think the world is getting better for my children, for the children they might have one day – the same way my parents and grandparents, despite the racial injustice that confronted them every day, hoped their offspring would grow up in a better world. We make progress. And take two steps back. This is our depressing trend, and it starves the optimists among us while nourishing the pessimists.

So I picked two young protagonists who spoke to these different parts of my personality – the hopeful one and the more pragmatic or cynical one. For Elwood, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a model of engagement with the dark forces of the world – if you stand up, if you fight for justice, you can remake the world. Turner, on the other hand, has survived by seeing the world as it actually is, not as we want it to be. Thus, the staff and administration of the Nickel Academy are stand-ins for all the malevolent powers that grind us down. When Elwood and Turner meet, their debate about how to live and exist begins, and for me, that’s the heart of the novel – the war between these two philosophies. 

Like you, Elwood loves books. He receives inspiration and sustenance from all the novels and essays he keeps in his grandmother’s broken-down bookcase. The boy thinks he can fix the world, and if there’s one of him, there must be more – it’s simple numbers. Perhaps you saw some of yourself in him, and counted him as one of your tribe, as he took the lessons from his collection and applied them to his time at Nickel, where the word is pitted against the world.

Colson Whitehead, July 2019


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