Thursday, August 20, 2020

Tallahassee, Florida: The Nickel Boys

Tallahassee, Florida.

When I was in high school, my parents, brother, and sister went to Tallahassee, Florida, for the summer, while I arranged for myself to stay with my aunt and go to a special summer school. My mother brought back with her a set of beautiful watercolors which she did in her kitchen there: she said she loved the high humidity because she liked to wash the colors while the paper was damp, and in Tallahassee summer weather, this worked well. Above is one of these beautiful paintings, which currently hangs in my daughter's house.

The Nickel Boys, winner of the Pulitzer
Prize in Fiction for 2020.
I thought about these idyllic scenes with cows and green grass as I read a novel that takes place in and near Tallahassee: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Although it's a famous prize-winner, I knew little about the book. You probably know more than I did, as it was a best-seller and widely reviewed.

The Nickel Boys shocked me with its power and skill and immediacy. It made me think about the two worlds of Tallahassee: the bucolic farm scenes my mother painted and the cruel and unjust world of the central character, the boy Elwood, a bright and ambitious boy -- but he is destroyed by his society. The date of my family's stay in Florida, and thus the date on this painting, is just at the time when Elwood was a boy, a bit before the main action of the book, which particularly made me connect the book and my mother's paintings.

All the time I was reading it, I was thinking about "Black Lives Matter," which to me calls forth the time in the book when Black Lives didn't matter to anyone but themselves and when systematic racism was the norm, in fact was almost required of whites. And how we need to work on the way the set of injustices is still embedded almost invisibly in our society. Or as it's stated in the novel about the white southerners:
"Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. ... After the Civil War, when a five-dollar fine for a Jim Crow charge— vagrancy, changing employers without permission, 'bumptious contact,' what have you— swept black men and women up into the maw of debt labor, the white sons remembered the family lore." (p. 191). 
The novel invokes the Black experience in Tallahassee, the setting of The Nickel Boys but it could be anywhere in America. I grew up in St.Louis, where it wasn't seriously different. You know that special summer school I went to? I think there was no more than one Black student, if any, in a hand-picked group of several hundred students in several academic areas, representing the entire urban and suburban area. St.Louis remains in the news for instances of injustice and bigotry, but I'm getting off the topic.

The beautiful story of Elwood's childhood optimism emerges as we learn of his school experiences with one good teacher, and as he's encouraged in his hopes by his reading of the speeches and actions of Martin Luther King, particularly by a recording of one of King's speeches. Whitehead makes extremely effective use of quotes from King throughout the book. Clearly the twenty-first-century reader is challenged to question how much progress we've made to date, in achieving the vision of a better society. And the hopes of the boy Elwood are clearly such a futile set of hopes.

Abuses are common in Elwood's life. A rigged system subsidizes white home buyers, not Blacks like Elwood's grandmother. A rigged system sent him to reform school -- the Nickel School -- when he hoped to go to college. At Nickel, Elwood lived a life in torment in a hideous place called the White House. Systematic and legally mandated injustice meant the Black inmates of the reform school mainly had bad oatmeal to eat. School managers sold the more wholesome food meant for the boys, especially that meant for the black boys, to the town diners and drug stores -- Elwood was forced to help deliver this food to the town businesses. The book is full of extremely specific examples, but the reader can never lose sight of what they meant for society 60 years ago, and what they still mean now.

The cruelty of cheating the boy-inmates of the food intended for them becomes critical in the final scenes when state inspectors arrive to see the situation at the school. A show is put on for the inspectors, and the boys know it, though they enjoy the moment. Briefly:
"The three house fathers stood before the serving trays, which that day were filled with the food the students were supposed to get every morning: scrambled eggs, ham, fresh juice, and pears." (p. 176). 
"The other students made so much noise when they saw what the kitchen had cooked up for lunch— hamburgers and mashed potatoes and ice cream that would never see the inside of Fisher’s Drugs— that Blakeley told them to keep it down. 'You want them to think this is some kind of circus we running here?'" (p. 180).  
"Perhaps Nickel was the very afterlife that awaited him, with a White House down the hill and an eternity of oatmeal and the infinite brotherhood of broken boys." (p. 189).
At the end of the book, in some thoughts of a minor character who didn't experience the Tallahassee life, says much about the current way that this history continues to haunt America:
"She had grown up in the same country with the same skin. She lived in New York City in 2014. It was hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be— bending to a colored fountain when she visited her family in Virginia, the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down— and then it all returned in a rush, set off by tiny things, like standing on a corner trying to hail a cab, a routine humiliation she forgot five minutes later because if she didn’t, she’d go crazy, and set off by the big things, a drive through a blighted neighborhood snuffed out by that same immense exertion, or another boy shot dead by a cop: They treat us like subhumans in our own country. Always have." (p. 206). 
If you read this book, I think you will know what is meant by "Black Lives Matter." I hope so. If you leave a comment here that says "all lives matter" I won't publish it, because either you just don't get it, or you accept the evil of the racism of our society.

Review by mae sander for mae's food blog at maefood dot blog spot dot com. © 2020. 


My name is Erika. said...

Your mother's was so talented. Her painting blew me away. I haven't read this book but it was interesting reading your critique of it. Hope it was a good day. hugs-Erika

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

It's lovely to have family art work on the walls. Thank you for sharing this book with us. Shabbat Shalom Mae.

Divers and Sundry said...

What a beautiful watercolor scene, and it's delightful to have this piece around for all the memories it evokes. I'm a sucker for award-winners, and Whitehead sounds like a must-read author.

Black Lives Matter!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

YES! I love that watercolor. Your mother is/was very talented.

I love that you have reviewed a book that reminds me of growing up in a small KS town where there was only one half-black, half-hispanic family. I was insulated from racism. However, when I graduated high school and moved to a larger town, I became friends with a black girl my age. People would look at us like we were gum on the bottoms of their shoes. They would talk behind our backs and laugh when we left a restaurant. I can't believe how far we HAVEN'T come since the 80s.

My black friend (still) MATTERS. ALL Black Lives Matter.

eileeninmd said...


Love the beautiful watercolor, your mother was a talented artist. I don't remember racism in the schools I went. I had a diverse group of friends growing up. Also, my parents raised us to be respectful of everyone. Great book! Thank you for linking up and sharing your post. Enjoy your day, have a great weekend. PS, thanks for visiting my blog and for the comment.

Jeff the Chef said...

I love that painting. My mother used to paint, and I have some of her pieces hanging on my walls. I love them, and I love that they remind me of her.

I'm right there with you on the "all lives" response to BLM. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and think that they've been misled, or that they just don't understand ... but ultimately I think that there are a lot of people who just need to come to grips with the fact that they're racists.

Bill said...

I like the picture your mother painted, she had talent. I always wished I could paint but I do enjoy taking photos. Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful weekend.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

It never ceases to amaze me how little we have grown as a nation and how obstinate we are to learning from past mistakes.

Rain said...

Hi Mae :) Your mother's watercolour painting is beautiful! :)