The Nickel Boys Book Review

It is well understood that the United States fails and punishes people of color. For example, individuals from these communities struggle to find employment, educational opportunities and generally report poor health outcomes. The struggles that these communities endure must have been the inspiration that moved Colson Whitehead to author The Nickel Boys. This book is a sobering reflection on the inequalities and disparities that hamper the ineffectiveness of the American criminal justice system. 

The Nickel Boys book focuses on the experiences of Elwood Curtis, a young and idealistic African American male. In the book, Curtis remains hopeful that through the pursuit of education, he will manage to overcome the poverty that has held his community back for generations. Unfortunately, the American system frustrates his efforts. According to Whitehead, the system appears designed to undermine the efforts of people of color to improve their situations. These communities must understand that the pursuit of education may not be enough.

Whitehead’s book is indeed depressing and saddening. It offers a true reflection of the glaring inequalities and disparities in the American economic system. Such people of color as Curtis are forced to overcome many hurdles. Even when they demonstrate effort, resilience, and commitment, the system finds ways to thwart their attempts to escape poverty and hardship. There is no question that Whitehead aimed to challenge the US to take steps to address the plight of minorities and the poor.

While it may leave readers depressed, Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is also likely to inspire and move them. The book achieves this by focusing on the tremendous effort and unbreakable spirit of Curtis. This young man is defiant as he refuses to allow poverty and deprivation to steal his dream. He goes as far as using a stolen vehicle to travel to school. The low depths that Curtis sinks to in the quest for education shows that for many people of color, extreme measures are needed in order to obtain the resources they need to break the poverty grip.

Curtis represents the thousands of African Americans and other minorities who resort to unconventional, questionable and extreme measures to achieve their aspirations. However, as Whitehead suggests, these measures are not sufficient. They must be combined with the appropriate mindset and outlook. These disadvantaged and marginalized communities must remain positive. Even when their efforts are frustrated, they must stay hopeful and keep their eyes on the goals that they wish to accomplish. This is how freedom is won.

Even as he encourages minorities to be hopeful and continue to strive for economic and political liberty, Whitehead acknowledges that the journey is fraught with hardships. For example, he shows how Curtis is arrested, convicted and drawn into violent conflicts while in prison. Curtis’ experiences echo those of other African American men who seem unable to stay clear of trouble. For example, today, these men can be stopped and arrested even without committing crimes. Whitehead’s book should remind the US that the country is deeply flawed. 

Before they proceed to read The Nickel Boys book, readers should ensure that their hearts are ready and equipped to handle disappointment and pain. This book suggests that being a decent human being does not protect one from hardship. In fact, kindness and empathy appear to be ingredients for avoidable pain. For instance, Curtis is assaulted in prison as he attempts to protect another inmate. It is unfortunate that American society punishes those who seek to make the nation more equal. One simply needs to look at how the police treat protestors demanding equality. They are often greeted with brutality and inhumanity.

Through the tragic death of Curtis, Whitehead suggests that to survive, people of color should keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Sadly, this is the same reality that African Americans face today. For example, when confronted by officers, black men are advised to speak softly, keep their hands in full view, and avoid any drastic or sudden movements. White men would not be expected to act similarly. It is indeed unfortunate that despite the progress that it has made, the US continues to treat the black community and other people of color so poorly.

Police brutality and the racial disparities in the American criminal justice system are the key issues that Whitehead explores through the life of Curtis. For instance, there is a plot among prison officials to kill Curtis. This plot represents how the American system colludes with other enemies of progress to keep communities of color subdued and under-developed. For instance, banks are known to refuse to lend to black customers. In essence, the American system is made up of parties which seem frightened that once it finds economic and political liberty, the black community will pose a serious threat to the privileges that others have enjoyed for decades.

The fact that the efforts of most African Americans to change their situation often fail is another message that Whitehead conveys. Despite years of resilient campaigns, African Americans continue to wallow in poverty and political oppression. Curtis mirrors the situation of this community. He attempted to escape from jail but was caught and shot dead. His death should remind the black community and other disadvantaged groups that they face powerful forces which are keen to see them fail and will spare no expense to thwart any revolution.

It is not surprising that The Nickel Boys is based on true events. A Florida reform school which subjected dozens of students to torture, sexual assault and even death provided Whitehead with the material for the book. While the reform school did not exclusively hold black students, the ills that it committed are similar to the failings of the American society in its treatment of African Americans. It is unacceptable that such horrors as those that occurred at the Florida school occurred for so long. What is even more unacceptable is that black people still suffer.

Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys does not present much information that can be considered surprising or new. Many Americans understand that the system is broken and unfair. Despite this understanding, it is clear that Americans are reluctant to challenge the system and push for equality. They have left it to African Americans and other minorities to fight for better treatment on their own. If the rest of America does not join minorities in campaigning for justice, the same fate that befell Curtis could strike people of color. They may continue to endure racist injustice.

It is true that the Nickel Boys focuses primarily on the situation in the US. However, the book is relevant and appropriate for all readers because it tackles universal questions. For instance, injustice and discrimination are global problems. Therefore, readers from various national and cultural backgrounds will relate with the experiences of Curtis and other characters whose suffering represent the challenges that others also face.  In conclusion, The Nickel Boys by Whitehead is inspired, bold, and fresh. Unlike other publications which are too afraid to confront the racist American criminal justice system, Whitehead’s book offers an accurate and true depiction of the system. It shows that American society has historically conspired to limit progress for minorities. Furthermore, the book highlights the futility of efforts by minorities to obtain freedom. While they will encounter serious challenges, victims of injustice should not relent in their pursuit of liberty.