Colson Whitehead’s follow up to his highly acclaimed The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys is the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida and is based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children.
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men."
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
Discussion of The Nickel Boys, chosen as a #1 INDIE NEXT pick for August, will be facilitated by Hasan Jeffries, history professor at The Ohio State University and an expert in African American history. Jeffries facilitated Gramercy’s robust discussion of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in 2017. Dr. Jeffries, who frequently teaches graduate and undergraduate seminars on the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, has received several fellowships in support of his research, including a Ford Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship. He has also regularly shared his expert knowledge of African American history and contemporary black politics with the general public through lectures, teacher workshops, and frequent media appearances.