Author Colson Whitehead won his second consecutive Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this powerful story of life within the walls of Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school for boys. Set in the 1960s, the experiences of the main character, an African American boy named Ellwood Curtis, show how racial injustices intersect with the general depravity of the institution. Although a work of fiction, Whitehead draws on historical accounts and reports from the real-life Florida Dozier School for Boys to create this important but difficult to read novel.
I read this book as part of a community social justice book club. As a sociologist who has studied inequity in the child welfare system, I had great interest in this narrative about children who lack protection from both those charged with their care as well as from adults in the wider society. The story stayed with me long after I read it because of Whitehead's ability as a writer to connect me, as a reader, in a palpable way to the fear of the Nickel boys. To me, this was the thread that ran through the entire book; the African American boys, in particular, lived with an underlying fear, whether they were inside the institution or outside of it. In contrast to reading social scientific studies, this account provoked a strong emotional reaction in me, although I recognize it is still worlds apart from actually experiencing the things which made the boys fearful.
The book details multiple horrors, those of a society where racial violence against Black people is visible and commonplace as well as those of an institution where mistreatment is hidden from the public under the guise of helping children. It exposes another piece of the story of race in the U.S. by depicting how race has impacted the life chances of children within state conservatorship. This story also connects to many current situations where we continue to see racial inequity in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. We continue to see Black children overrepresented in both systems and see the abuse of children within institutions where the state is responsible for their care. Just last week, a federal judge found the Texas Department of Health and Human Services in contempt of court for failing to implement mandated reforms to foster care programs. There is much that still needs to change.