Nickel Boys book cover

SPA Alum Jackie Starr on The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

February 22, 2021

In our series Wonderwork, CU Denver students, faculty, staff, and alumni recommend one book, podcast, television show, film, etc. that deserves more attention. Our ultimate goal is to promote a more diverse and inclusive book and media culture. February is Black History Month, so our focus is on works by or about Black writers and directors. Nominate your favorite Wonderwork by or posting on social media with #CUDenverWonderWork

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches mesmerized young Elwood Curtis. His grandmother, Harriet, a strict and righteous woman who raised him, purchased a recording, “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill” as his Christmas gift in 1962. It was his only record and he listened to it over and over again. It helped him believe that he was as good as anybody. It also inspired him to believe that Black people would one day win their freedom by their capacity to suffer and still love their oppressors. Elwood’s beliefs in the truths that King spoke would be both his inspiration and his destruction. His disillusionment and downfall happened at The Nickel Academy. 

The Nickel Boys is the fictionalized tale of Elwood, a bright, aspiring college student sent to the academy for stealing a car, when all he had really done was to innocently hitchhike a ride in a car he did not know was stolen by the driver. 

Gruesome Dozier School for Boys

The novel is based on the gruesome Dozier School for Boys, founded in Marianna, Florida, in 1900. It opened as the Florida State Reform School for black and white boys, ostensibly to provide boys with the education and skills necessary for them to succeed in the world-at-large and not to re-offend. For most, their “crimes” were generally minor or even just pranks. For other boys confined there, their only crime was having been abandoned or orphaned.   

The campus, seen from afar, looked serene. In reality, during the 111 years it operated, boys were sexually abused, beaten, mutilated, demeaned, put in dark solitary confinement, forced into physical labor, paroled out to rich white citizens who kept them enslaved in their basements. Over 80 boys (and probably many more) died there. Disease, a fire, beatings, and hangings by school personnel took their lives. They were also assaulted, bullied, tortured, and raped by fellow inmates. These “boys,” now old and tired men, finally came forward as a group in 2009 and testified to the crimes they endured and the scars they live with today. Despite continuous claims of dark deeds over the years of its existence, it took this group and a series of newspaper reports to launch investigations and archaeological digs. Whitehead read the reports in 2014 and started his book.  

This novel could be called a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about Elwood, who moves from naivety to cynicism in his sojourn at the school. The story is also a tale of friendship that entwines Elwood and another inmate named Turner, and ultimately determines their fate. 

Racism and the Legacy of Slavery

Whitehead’s story is about racism and the way it poisons both Black and white people. There are back stories about other inmates—sad stories of drugs and alcohol, abandonment and poverty, mental illness and PTSD. 

The legacy of slavery is reenacted by the keepers, men who beat their charges and steal and sell the boys’ supplies, and the complicit townsfolk, who buy the stolen goods, get free inmate labor at their homes yet forbid the kids from sitting in their restaurants.  

Students at Dozier were segregated. In Whitehead’s novel, the white kids get new uniforms and better work. The Black kids are given used clothing and lower-level work. Supplies were more often stolen from the Black dormitories than from the whites. While Whitehead’s novel concerns the Black boys, it was mainly the white survivors who came forward to the press to tell their stories, so the cruelty was not completely racially motivated.  

The Nickel Boys, written in a straightforward style, deals with the profound and complex questions of racism and the myriad manifestations that we live with today. Sit-ins, protests, guilt, regret, graft, corruption, and hard-won success are all woven into the story. 

Harvard-educated Whitehead won his first Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad in 2017 and his second for The Nickel Boys in 2020.  

– Jackie Starr, SPA Alum

Jackie Starr graduated from the University of Colorado Denver in 1981 with a master’s degree in urban affairs from the School of Public Affairs. She lives in Aurora with her two dogs and 40-year-old red-eared slider turtle.