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Colson Whitehead on how the racism and injustice of today and yesterday inspired his harrowing new book

Colson Whitehead on how the racism and injustice of today and yesterday inspired his harrowing new book
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America has done well mythologizing itself in popular culture through TV and movies and literature and song lyrics. Take a road trip through the country, take the I-75 or the I-95 down to Florida, and your mind will play a track sampling from these bits of popular culture.

But that particular mythology is not the only story; in fact, its volume can drown out other versions of American life so you might have trouble hearing them even though they’re out there. You need powerful voices to rise up and tell them, to balance things out. Voices like writer Colson Whitehead’s and stories like his blockbuster 2016 book The Underground Railroad, or his just-published The Nickel Boys.

On a drive through the southern states, down to Florida, say, you’ll see that these stories become part of the fabric of the American narrative and you can’t view America in quite the same way again.

The Nickel Boys wasn’t the book Colson Whitehead was planning to write next. Instead, he was working on a crime novel, something a bit lighter after the intensity of his National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad, a searing portrait of the lives slaves endured in America, told through the character of a young slave, Cora.

But then, while he was working on that crime novel set in 1960s Harlem, circumstances intervened: “We elected a white supremacist president.”

Whitehead first heard about the story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida along with the rest of the world, after the school closed in 2011 and newspaper accounts of the horrible events at the ‘school’ near Tallahassee were really coming out nationally. (Researchers estimate nearly 100 boys died there.) He knew he wanted to write about it at some point, just not then.

But, sometimes, circumstances dictate that a book needs to be written. In the summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., a young Black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, sparking rioting that made international headlines. A grand jury later decided not to bring charges against the officer, and a new wave of violent protests began.

“It was the summer of Ferguson, and ... the summer of a new conversation about brutality,” says Whitehead, during an interview in Toronto in March. It was the first time he had really started speaking to the media about the book and he said then that the analysis about relations with the police “always seems a bit tedious, because we do have this conversation about police brutality for like a year, and then we stop and then something else happens, then we start again.”

But the story of Dozier took it to a different place. It was, Whitehead realized, something of a lightning rod for a variety of issues. “A reform school overlaps (with the) educational system, jails, Jim Crow overlaps with slavery in terms of the indentured kids being sold to townspeople.”

He hadn’t heard of Dozier before, despite being something of a news junkie. But the more he read, the more he realized it also provided him with a way of understanding.

“It just seems ... to make sense of where we were, as a country, to write a book that dealt with some of our institutional failures, which are racism (and) our incarceration state, would be useful for me just to figure out where we are.”

Besides, he says, “if there’s one Dozier there’s dozens, and (if) it was not a reform school, it’s a Catholic orphanage, it’s a, what do you call them — residential schools … it’s a universal story.”

The Nickel Boys is hard to read — the characters of Elwood Curtis and Turner (he’s not given a first name til the end of the book) are so well-drawn, the pacing so exact, the betrayals so heartbreaking — and, in some ways, Whitehead says, it was harder to write about than The Underground Railroad. With that latter book, he says, “I think I did the heavy lifting before I started writing, just doing the research and committing to depicting slavery in a certain way.”

“And that’s maybe why I resisted doing two books that deal with such heavy matter back to back … it was hard in a different way than I’ve experienced with other books.”

This book takes place in the late 1950s/early 1960s. It begins as the story of Elwood, a Black boy in the Deep South who is filled with a sort of hope and expectation about life. He is inspired, as you would expect, by the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Through a series of events, many unfortunate and devastatingly unfair — no spoilers here — he becomes incarcerated in the Nickel Academy — a school based, Whitehead says, on Dozier. There he meets Taylor, the other main protagonist in the book.

References to pop culture — to mythologizing — appear throughout, both before Elwood is incarcerated and throughout his ordeal: to Playboy magazine, to Victorian writers, to Jane Austen, who Elwood reads in order to improve himself. Inspectors who come to the school — who are meant to see the truth of the school but don’t — look like Jackie Gleason or JFK.

“They’re (the boys are) failed ... by the safe pop-cultural ideal,” explains Whitehead. “JFK is not going to save them ... they will be failed on all fronts.”

Some of the most visceral scenes in the book occur when someone is taken away to be beaten; the reaction the boys have translates into a sort of PTSD.

In doing research on the school, Whitehead visited websites set up by the survivors of Dozier. “They never figured out how to be part of straight society,” he says. “These broken men also have this vocabulary from the last 20 years, of people seeking psychiatric help and having a language … we have progressed as a culture in terms of understanding PTSD.”

We have also, or should have, progressed in understanding the cultural resonance that it has and, as a result, we are capable of understanding the resonance this might have in an entire people. Whitehead shows us that, if these boys, now men, hadn’t been ruined, they could have had that mythic American opportunity — they could have been, as is theorized in the book, “Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery.”

It is part of the brilliance of this book that Whitehead takes complex, contradictory events and ideas and plants them side by side to create understanding and underscore the complexity of the problems facing us. Coming back to King — whose ideals Elwood first experienced by listening to them, as an “abstraction” — later to think about how King’s non-violent philosophy applies to him. Whitehead writes:

“The capacity to suffer. Elwood — all the Nickel boys — existed in that capacity … Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

“Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.”

This does not mean there is no hope. “You know, like Elwood, I can’t reconcile Martin Luther King’s exhortation to embrace the oppressor and it seems crazy,” Whitehead says. “But then, also ... that’s part of King’s personality and a part of his genius and brilliance to have that contradiction. And then I think, I definitely feel that contradiction of having hope and pessimism at the same time, or realism and hope at the same time.”

You can’t get rid of an ingrained mythology; but you can balance it out, make sure that, when you drive through Florida, you’re not only thinking about Walt Disney World — you’re hearing the voices of Elwood and Turner and the echoes of their screams and you understand there’s blood in those fields you’re driving by.
Read more on Toronto Star
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