“Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, a story of racism and impunity – Jeune Afrique

The Pulitzer Prize-winning new novel by Colson Whitehead, “Nickel Boys,” is inspired by the true story of boys being abused and abused in a Florida reformatory.

What really happened to the boys at Dozier School for Boys in Florida? At the end of an investigation, launched shortly after the final closure in 2011 of this century-old reformatory, a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida discovered the remains of 55 children buried at the site. Yet the facility’s cemetery contains only 31 crosses – themselves anonymous, loosely attributed to a fire in 1914 or an influenza epidemic.

Collected by associations and journalists, the testimonies of former residents suggest the worst. Ill-treatment, torture, rape… The worst abuses have been endured by several generations of boys.

Raw and sensitive feather

If he never found the strength to go to the scene of the crimes, Colson Whitehead imbibed these stories to write Nickel Boys. While the vast majority of alumni who testify today are white, the African-American writer lends his pen both raw and sensitive to their black comrades, “educated” apart from others until the end. 1960s, as the Jim Crow laws dictated.

As a true “America’s storyteller” – a title awarded by the Time Magazine, which he covered in June 2019 – Colson Whitehead recounts the segregation in this disciplinary school, renamed Nickel Academy for fiction: “They had learned it very young, at school, in the streets and on the roads of their dusty cities. Nickel got it right in their heads: you are blacks in a world of whites. “

A brilliant teenager rocked by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Elwood is the victim of a bad meeting and a racist police officer, who leads him straight into the hell of Nickel. Spokesperson for the “infinite brotherhood of broken boys”, he recounts the days of forced labor in the brickyard, on the farm, at the printing house or among the notables of the city, to clear the basements of old copies. of Ku Klux Klan newspapers. And “the nights when the only noises were those of tears and insects, where you could crowd together with sixty boys without ever forgetting that you were alone in the world”.

The summer when people got away with impunity ”

Feeling of revolt

Despite several inspections, the abuses continued for decades, with the complicity of the Florida authorities. This is what strikes Colson Whitehead when he first hears about the history of these boys. The feeling of revolt is all the more keen for the author since we are then in the middle of summer 2014, “the summer when people got away with impunity”, in his own words.

On July 17, 2014, six years before George Floyd, Eric Garner, a 44-year-old black father, suffocated under the weight of a police officer from Staten Island, New York. On August 9, six years before Jacob Blake, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, while he was unarmed.

If the Black Lives Matter movement gave him hope, Colson Whitehead confided in Time, in June 2019, on the fear that no black can really get rid of. Even a 50-something from a wealthy family like him, who grew up in Manhattan and spent his summers in the upscale Hamptons neighborhood. Even a feather of his ilk, winning two Pulitzer Prizes – he is the fourth author, and the only black, to have achieved this feat. Even a literary star like him, praised by former President Barack Obama and compared to Toni Morrison.

Many critics and readers have drawn parallels between his first Pulitzer, Underground Railroad, and that of the immense African-American author, Beloved. Between the story of Sethe, a former slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter and that of the young Cora, 16 years old, on the clandestine roads which made it possible to pass from the slave South to the abolitionist North.

Ironically, ten years earlier, Colson Whitehead had refused to respond to an invitation from Toni Morrison. During a meeting on the Princeton campus, she had offered to drink a coffee, he had not followed up, deeming himself unworthy of such an honor.

“Nickel Boys”, by Colson Whitehead, was translated into French by Charles Recoursé. It was published by Albin Michel editions and costs 19.90 euros for 272 pages. © Editions Albin Michel

“Underground railroad” in mini-series

Did the Nobel Prize for Literature foresee the irresistible rise that awaited this New Yorker? Barry Jenkins saw his talent very early on. Long before his film’s Oscar triumph Moonlight, crowned with three statuettes in 2017, the director dreamed of transposing on the big screen The Intuitionist, the first novel by Whitehead, published in 1999. It is finally to the adaptation ofUnderground Railroad in mini-series that the filmmaker has harnessed. The shooting of the 11 episodes, launched in August 2019, ended on September 22, after several months of interruption due to the coronavirus.

Colson Whitehead was able to take advantage of the confinement to complete Harlem Shuffle, a thriller that will be released in the United States in 2021. Has this verbose spirit been less destabilized than the common people by the Covid-19, ten years after having imagined his country devastated by a pandemic in Zone One? An apocalyptic fiction, inspired by the horror novels of Stephen King… but without Donald Trump.

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“Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, a story of racism and impunity – Jeune Afrique

Hank Gilbert