My Post on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Anyone interested in learning more about the depth of racism in Florida society should read Nickel Boys. Set in a reform school in northern Florida,very near the state capital, Tallahassee, during the 1960s. At that time Florida was very much a segregated state in which it was taken for granted by those in power that African Americans were inferior to whites. This was a matter of law not just custom.
Our central character, Elwood is a straight A student with a scholarship to a black college awaiting him. He lives with his grandmother. One day long ago his parents just took off for California leaving him behind. He hitched a ride with a black man in a New Plymouth. It turns out the car was stolen and Elwood was sentenced to reform school as an accomplice. Blacks and white students are in separate housing and don’t much mingle. The “House masters” run the gamut from a few decent and fair to sexually abusive near sadists not above beating a boy to death.
The school has a system for allowing boys to advance in privileges and get released. Basically it boils down to being obedient and subservient. The school is run in a very corrupt way, supplies meant for the boys are sold and the boys are rented out to do work on the houses of the richer people in the area.
Boys who act up are beaten with a leather whip in a special building, called The White House. Sometimes boys just disappear. Elwood’s grandmother comes to see him, many of the families want nothing to do with the inmates.
Elwood tries to gain strength from the words of Martin Luther King, he becomes friends with another boy, one that looks on Elwood as totally naive
Whitehead takes us way into the future and shows us what happened in later years to the boys. Some did well, most did not, but all bore mental scars and were damaged by how they were treated at the school.
The Nickel Boys is Florida history, Florida before Disney World, the Latin influx.
I highly recommend this book. Reading time is under four hours. I think it would be a great book for Florida High schools.
Below is an extract from The Smithsonian Institute Magazine on The School.
“Many of the human remains found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Florida’s first juvenile detention center for boys, were buried over a century ago. But questions about their identities—and what exactly happened at this notorious school—have remained alive throughout the center’s brutal history. Who is buried in the school’s many graves, and how did they die?
Now, thanks to a new reportby archaeologists and forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida, some answers have finally emerged. NPR’s Laura Wagner writesthat an investigation of the Marianna, Florida institution, which only closed in 2011, has revealed scores of marked and unmarked graves and sets of remains. In the report, researchers discuss work that revealed 55 on-site graves and 51 sets of remains. Using the remains they did find on site, they made seven DNA identifications and 14 other presumptive matches.
The report is the final step in a four-year process of excavation and archaeological exploration at the school. The detention center opened in 1897 and was initially run by governor-appointed commissioners, but the governor and cabinet of Florida later took control.
Its original mandate within Florida state statutes was to actas “not simply a place of correction, but a reform school, where the young offender of the law, separated from vicious associates, may receive careful physical, intellectual and moral training." The boys were to to be restored as honorable citizens that contribute to society.”
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-finally-know-what-happened-brutal-reform-school-180957911/#hLhmoRTde0Z55Ypk.99
Colson Whitehead is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Underground Railroad, which was a number one New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he lives in New York City.