Paul Von Blum
Paul Von Blum is Senior Lecturer in Communication and African American Studies at UCLA. He has taught at the University of California for 51 years and has published extensively in the social sciences, humanities, and law. He is an active member of the California Bar, an NLG member, and has practiced pro bono social justice law almost exclusively throughout his career.
In general, literature and the humanities offer the legal community powerful insights not available in conventional legal discourse, including most cases, law review articles, and treatises. I have had the pleasure of teaching humanities materials for the past half-century, primarily to undergraduates at the University of California but occasionally in law school settings. Novels, short stories, films, and visual artworks addressing legal institutions critically, and often savagely, are capable of generating intense and durable reactions among student audiences; some of these reactions can positively impact their future legal career choices along anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti- homophobic, and similar social justice paths.
One of the literary genres in this broad tradition concerns incarceration, especially juvenile imprisonment. Two iconic works from Ireland and England respectively that I have used effectively are Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy and Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Both of these magnificent literary works address the deep inequities of the “re- form” school system in those countries, focusing especially on social class and the frequently brutal treatment of working-class youth.
A recent magnificent addition to this literary narrative of juvenile imprisonment from America is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. Whitehead, one of America’s leading black writers, felt compelled to write this novel when he discovered the story of the infamous reform school that became the setting for the book His chilling novel is based on the real history of a reform school in Florida that operated from 1900 to 2011 and that destroyed the lives of thousands of white and black children. This book is a terrifying narrative of racial injustice that occurred during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
The actual historical and legal context sets the tone for the literary work itself. The Nickel Boys is a fictional account of the Dozier School for Boys, renamed as the Nickel Academy for a former leader of the “school.” The State of Florida ran this institution as a reform school. The Dozier School for Boys also promoted horrific beatings, torture, and even murder during its infamous existence. It was a place of rampant and unspeakable violence and abuse. The University of South Florida discovered fifty-five graves on its grounds and even more gravesites are being identified as late as 2019. There was no accountability and no serious state oversight. It was truly a monstrous place.
Two facts are also legally relevant here. As a state entity, the Nickel Academy was fully bound by all federal constitutional constraints, including the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement for equal protection under the law and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, among others. Moreover, the historic 1954 Board v. Board of Education ruling outlawing racial discrimination in schools bound the Nickel Academy, ostensibly a school, although its pupils were in fact inmates. The bogus education provided in that setting was nevertheless segregated by race throughout most of its history and the leaders of that reform school revealed an astonishing ignorance, or more likely contempt, of the federal legal requirements it faced.
Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel focuses on two young inmates of that infamous place. His main character is Elwood Curtis, an intelligent African American high school senior who lived with his grandmother in segregated Tallahassee. Abandoned by his parents at an early age, he is honest, hard- working, and above all keenly interested in education. In high school, he had a white teacher, a former freedom rider, who saw his high academic potential. He was also profoundly moved by the emerging civil rights struggle; he had a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, which he played incessantly. He planned to attend a segregated college when he graduated and seemed to be on a path for a decent and productive life, insofar as that was possible in the era of the Jim Crow South.
That goal of a good life was abruptly upended when he was caught hitch- hiking in a stolen car. With no presumption of innocence, young Ellwood was sent off to the Nickel Academy, for “physical, intellectual, and moral training.” Arriving in handcuffs, he found a nice-looking campus, a decorative front for what actually lay before him and the other inmates. After intake, Nickel Academy assigned him to the colored housing, wearing more threadbare uniforms than the white boys incarcerated at the institution, merely one more manifestation of the separate but unequal system of segregation of the South in that era.
Soon after his arrival, Elwood met another African American inmate named Turner. More cynical and hardened, Turner understands all too well the power dynamics of the Nickel Academy. Like millions of African Americans over the centuries, he realized the depth of white supremacy and the adaptive mechanisms required to navigate and survive in a racist society. He did his best to pass these lessons on to a naïve Elwood.
Early on during his incarceration, Elwood got a glimpse of the bogus education available to black students. The teacher in the colored schoolhouse was a genial alcoholic incompetent, and the textbooks were worse than he had had in his previous segregated school. Moreover, many of the other black inmates, mostly illiterate, paid no attention to the absurd lessons. In short, the education there was a fraud. In actuality, African American children on the outside received superior educations from their teachers in segregated schools because their teachers genuinely cared about them for the most part. The Nickel Academy pretense was a cover for the forced labor that the inmates were required to perform––a system not structurally different from slavery itself. Whitehead does a masterful job in his effective and understated way to encourage readers to make this chilling comparison.
As the narrative continues, Ellwood discovered the true horror of the institution. Good natured and fundamentally decent, he tried to break up a fight among some of the inmates. His big mistake: late at night, staffers came for him and removed him to the beating room, where he was mercilessly strapped perhaps 70 times. The result sent him to the reformatory hospital for over a week. The marginally competent doctor changed his dressings for his severe wounds from his beating and gave him aspirins. His friend Turner managed to get admitted by eating some soap powder to make himself sick with a stomachache. That action was reflective of the long historical cunning that African Americans have used in dealing with white racism in innumerable settings; it also allowed Turner to stay with his friend and avoid the forced work that was the true purpose of the Nickel Academy.
Following his release from the hospital, Ellwood rejoined various work crews. Some of these were in the surrounding town––the free world. In the process, he witnessed the pervasive graft, where Nickel officials skimmed profits and cash from the supplies and products of the institution. This was the kind of petty corruption that was (and is) all too common in state agencies throughout the country. But it had a devastating impact on the black inmates––no toothpaste, inferior school supplies, inferior food, and the like.
One of the highlights of the Nickel Academy year was the annual boxing match between the white and colored boys. The colored boys had held the title for fifteen years, a reality that did not sit well with the white rulers outside the institution itself. During the year that Elwood was incarcerated, the black boxer was a bullying and not too bright young man named Griff. In the championship match, he was to fight a white boy named Big Chet.
Money was riding on the championship. The Nickel Academy Superintendent, Mr. Spencer, had a private meeting with Griff. Whitehead put the matter delicately: “Good sportsmanship means letting the other team win sometimes.” But Griff was too thick to comprehend the Superintendent’s meaning. Finally, he told him directly that he was to take a dive in the third round or else they would take him out back. Spencer ended with consoling language: “You know you can beat him. That’ll have to be enough.” Griff never understood the significance of the meeting.
The championship match went on and Griff never took a dive, to the great consternation of Spencer and the other white men who had bet on Big Chet. They came for Griff that night and he was never seen again. Fifty years later, the forensic examiners dug him up and noted fractures on his wrist as well as many other broken bones. The Nickel Academy was a site of murder.
As Whitehead chillingly reveals, additional torture, sometimes resulting in death, regularly occurred. Before Ellwood arrived, a regular form of punishment was the sweatbox, also used in other Southern prisons, where inmates suffered dehydration, sometimes to the point of death. Influenza, tuberculosis, and pneumonia also took their toll. Likewise, accidents and other examples of egregious institutional negligence claimed many lives. The dead boys were buried in Boot Hill or released to their families. The novel also notes that some boys who had been “leased out” to local families wound up dead.
There were four ways out of the Nickel Academy. The first was to actually serve one’s time, which ranged from six months to two years. The Administration, at its discretion, could lighten the term for good behavior, which generally meant servility.
The second way out of this hellhole was to simply age out. That meant reaching the age of eighteen, when boys were shown the door and released into a hostile world. Most were so damaged that they were likely to wind up in even harsher penal institutions after “reoffending” following their lives in the free world. As Whitehead writes, “Nickel boys were so fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize their general trajectory.”
The third way was to die. The University of South Florida archaeologists made that abundantly clear in their investigations. “Natural causes,” blunt trauma as occurred with boxer Griff and many others, or shotgun blasts for those caught trying to escape––all tragic endings for boys whose young lives were cut short after serving time in what was supposed to be an educational institution.
The fourth was the most dangerous, but in some ways, it was the most definitive way out of this place of horror. A few boys sought to make a run for it. Most runners were captured, beaten, placed in a dark cell for a couple of weeks, and returned to their previous routine. In one case, a young man named Clayton Smith got picked up while attempting to flee by a white man who returned him to Nickel. Afterwards, the secret graveyard got a new “resident.”
Elwood could never forget the words and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King. Always reflective, he well understood the oppressive arrangements of the Nickel Academy. He had written a letter about the place and following a visit from state inspectors, he handed his letter to one of the inspectors. Another huge mistake: of course the letter was turned over to the Academy authorities, and the reprisal was swift and severe. It happened the same as before. They came at night to his colored dormitory with their flashlights and took him to the “White House” again. The Superintendent himself, plainly angered, gave him twenty licks, having said “I don’t know where they get those smart niggers.” 
Then, they took him to a dark cell with only a bucket for a toilet. It was a jail within a jail. Elwood could think only of Dr. King’s words. His experiences in solitary confinement mirror those of prisoners in juvenile and adult institutions throughout the country. They are inhumane and unconscionable––and unconstitutional.
When he was finally freed from that hellish regime, his friend Turner told him that they would take him “out back” the next day. In short, Turner knew that certain death awaited his friend. There was only one alternative, and Turner put it bluntly: “We got to get, man.”
The escape attempt, not surprisingly, was harrowing. But as usual, power prevailed. Officials from the Nickel Academy were on the trail, armed with shotguns. The first blast missed. The second hit the mark and Elwood fell. Improbably, Turner kept running and made it to freedom.
Colson Whitehead added a powerful fictional element to his novel with Turner’s character. After settling in New York City and starting a successful business, Turner assumed his friend’s name, becoming Elwood Curtis. Perhaps it was to avoid detection as an escaped prisoner from a Florida reform school or to memorialize and honor his friend’s memory and life–– or both. Many years later Turner cum Elwood returned to Tallahassee to attend a press conference about an update on the forensic investigation of the dead boys from the Nickel Academy. Some of the boys who had been beaten at the White House were also to speak. They were part of a website and were all white. Turner/Elwood thought that someone needed to speak for the black boys. It was a disconcerting trip, but for him a necessary one.
The author’s treatment of this character near the end of the novel is especially imaginative and makes this work an exemplary contemporary American novel. His ending is extremely unusual and differs from the more conventional narrative throughout most of the book, but it works very effectively. Whitehead’s book will and should be taught in literature and humanities classes in the United States and throughout the world.
It also has profound implications far beyond those and cognate fields. Law students have a compelling need to read it as well. Courses in the juvenile justice system and in criminal law generally can use this and similar works of fiction to grapple with the deeper realities of the systems they are studying. Law is much more than cases, statutes, and legal institutions; above all, it is what actually happens “on the street” or, in these cases, behind bars.
Few if any juvenile penal institutions or reform schools today bear any resemblance to the Nickel Academy. Yet many still have instances of cruelty and even brutality. Distressing percentages of inmates come from minority communities. Much of this is a result of the school to prison pipeline in the United States. Elwoods and Turners abound in our decrepit school systems. American juvenile justice institutions rarely engage in what could be called serious education and far too many of the young people currently incarcerated return to neighborhoods that are incubators of even greater criminality in the future, a consequence of grinding poverty and racism in capitalist America.
Colson Whitehead has written an outstanding, dark, and deeply troubling novel. I think that law school acceptance packets should include it along with official letters of congratulations.
1. The word “nigger” is repulsive and has had horrific consequences on millions of human beings for centuries. But language is contextual. When that monstrous word is used pejoratively, it must be instantly and strongly condemned. But in literature and other artworks, it can have powerful descriptive functions, especially when used by African American writers and artists. That is the case in this text.