Colson Whitehead wasn’t looking for a new story line when he opened a newspaper and read a haunting account of the history of punishment and violence at the Dozier School for Boys, a state-run facility in Marianna, Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times had uncovered the truth of life in bondage at the school and archaeology students from the University of South Florida had found proof of boys tortured and raped when they uncovered remains of young lives in a secret burial ground on school property.
Writer Whitehead, resting on the laurels of winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “The Underground Railroad,” saw in the evidence of mistreatment the “slave narrative” rendered to black lives a century earlier.
As an African-American writer, he began his research into the Florida Industrial School for Boys and wrote of two fictional victims, one sent to the school after hitching a ride in a stolen car. Elwood, innocent, was a boy who, before that fateful day, balanced an after-school job with a reputation as a promising student, assigned to advanced classes.
His one treasure, with him in the car, is an old recording of Martin Luther King’s sermons.
His friend at the reform school, Turner, is more worldly and bent on avoiding beatings, “a merciless application of a three-foot-long strap called Black Beauty.”
Elwood, who compiles a diary of suffering at the hands of men in charge of the school, plans to quietly pass it on to visiting dignitaries who come to tour the facility. Once his friend, Turner, volunteers to take that risk, we read, knowing there is no safe haven for either boy.
Though we wish for a Hollywood ending, Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” will offer no escape for Elwood or Turner.
Yet, the book is a reminder when raw talent is bound as a novel, we do not judge a writer by skin color. Colson Whitehead is an African-American teller of stories, awash in critical acclaim.
In the world of arts and letters, of music and sports, we have reached a place of “color-blindness” and rightly so. We applaud skill and creativity from a place of respect.
Still, in this mix of judgment, overcome, public service is experiencing a bad patch of cultural bias, laid at its feet. Of late, skin color has been called into question as a factor in legislative decisions.
“The Squad,” a small band of women of color, out-spoken in their new roles as members of the House of Representatives, has been a target of presidential ire. A critic of the president’s, an African-American, Rep. Elijah Cummings, duly elected, experienced a tough Oval Office assessment of the district he represents.
Sadly, we have been reminded “the past is never past.” Still, we cannot go back to even a hint of racial bias as an off-shoot of politics as usual.
The boys in the reform school in Marianna, Florida, were mostly dark of skin with no Atticus Finch to protect them. The recording of Martin Luther King’s sermons, memorized by Elwood, a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, held fast to Dr. King’s belief black lives were persecuted so often, in time, they would become immune to fear.
Dr. King counseled his followers to call forth a love for their oppressors, so strong “it would carry them to the other side of the struggle.”
“Be assured we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom,” he preached.
Surely, that day has come, yet the scars remain. There is a man who was once just a boy, no more than a number in a reform school. Every morning, he relives his months of solitary confinement, 27 years.