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Omaha Magazine

One Fictional Account of Nonfictional Injustice: The Nickel Boys

Jun 12, 2020 02:50PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
partial cover The Nickel Boys book

George Floyd, James Scurlock, curfews, and do not forget about COVID-19. These, among other reasons, are why I stay glued to my television set from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. most nights. The nightly news always shows turmoil, but the past several weeks have seen escalated disruption and chaos. The events on the news since May 25 have hit home, leaving me vigilantly watching not only the news at the dinner hour, but also the news at 10 p.m. 

The May 30 killing of James Scurlock reminded me that there is much I do not know about race in America, much I need to learn. On June 1, I researched several books regarding racism and called the local bookstores. The bookstores all sold out of the titles I desired—How to be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and others—during the previous weekend. I instead chose the historical fiction The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

The fictional Nickel Academy is based on the Dozier School for Boys, a state-run school in Marianna, Florida, that existed from 1900-2011. The school was shut down in 2011 following reports in 2009 that the school violently abused the students physically and sexually, and the 2010 Pulitzer-prize winning report by the St. Petersburg Times.

The novel follows the story of two black boys. Elwood is an academically gifted black teenager in early 1960s Florida who hitches a ride to his first day of college courses at a young age. The car he gets into is pulled over, and Elwood is charged with auto theft and sent to Nickel Academy. According to a report by NPR in 2012, Jerry Cooper, who is white, was sentenced to Dozier in 1961 for being pulled over while hitching a ride in a car that, unknown to him, was stolen. 

His first day, Elwood meets Turner. Elwood—who lived with a strict grandmother, has read newspapers, and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches—believes the world is going to change for the better. Turner is an orphan and skeptic, but he sees the good in Elwood. Turner visits Elwood as he recovers from a vicious beating; asks for Elwood to be part of an easy, yet crooked, work detail; and is with him through thick and thin. 

Smithsonian Magazine, among other publications, reported that black students suffered more than white students. “Three times as many black students died and were buried at Dozier than white students, and that some of those boys were incarcerated for non-criminal charges like running away and incorrigibility,” Erin Blakemore reported in 2016. “Black boys were less likely to be named in historical records, as well, reflecting the grim realities of reform school life in the segregated South.”

The book is well-written and fast-paced—I read the 210 pages in about 10 hours. Although fictional, the book mirrors what students at an actual Florida juvenile detention center went through. The horrors described in the book may not have happened to Elwood and Turner, but they happened. To people like Elwood and Turner.

I believe education makes us stronger. Educating myself through one story of two black men’s pain has given me a new outlook on one form of injustice that we need to reform.