By Tallulah Griffith
The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 2019
Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952
Mass incarceration has been termed the new Jim Crow; the disproportionate likelihood that young Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds will end up in prison has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline. At a time when, following the death of George Floyd, we are all increasingly aware of the devastating effects of police brutality on black lives, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning The Nickel Boys vividly characterises the logic of garbage disposal which bolsters the prison system. Just a year after Tayari Jones thematised the wrongful conviction of black Americans in An American Marriage, Whitehead similarly takes up the subject of criminal (in)justice, utilising junk heaps, bin strikes and cleaning jobs to demonstrate how ethnic minorities are materially and metaphorically linked to waste products. The novel broadly follows bright black student Elwood Curtis, who is arrested for hitching a ride to college in what transpires to be a stolen car, and sent to ‘Nickel’, a reform school from which he later escapes. Nickel is a fictionalisation of the Florida School for Boys which closed in 2011 following an exposé of systematic misconduct, and the violence enacted by the school’s authorities is epitomised in the ‘White House’, the name by which real-life survivors name the disciplinary institution. Whitehead gathered much of his inspiration from http://thewhitehouseboys.com/, a support network for former students. Though the Nickel boys are maligned as society’s waste, throughout the novel, Whitehead finds ways for ‘waste’ to be recuperated, rethought, and retold.
Opening with the excavation of Nickel’s secret burial ground, the novel works outwards from a junkyard. The archaeological dig which drives the plot demands ‘sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles’ all lumped in together, and takes place ‘decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped’. Former resident Pastor John Lee Gaddy remembers of the Florida School dump, ‘I throwed the stuff out there in the pit, and I saw a boy’s hand’. The text’s subsequent parts are likewise structured by garbage: part three situates the protagonist in the amassing refuse of the 1975 New York garbage strikes, where part two sets Elwood’s police pick-up against the backdrop of onlookers who ‘gripped the railings as if afraid of falling overboard’, calling up the imagery of the slave ship and Elwood as the already jettisoned cargo. When, at the novel’s conclusion, it transpires that the main characters are not quite who we thought they were, we might think back to this image of waste, and its representation of the boys’ reduction to indistinguishable matter. The work of the novel, it seems, is to restore individual voices, and reveal interchangeability as the condition under which ethnic minorities exist in relation to state power, nodding to abundant historical instances of lynching and captivity resulting from mistaken identity. Far from producing model citizens, the prison system succeeds only in reducing its inmates to dust.
This imaginative connection between waste and undesirable peoples is far from confined to the prison system; minority populations frequently suffer both the material and symbolic associations with filth that come with poverty and the ghetto, prostitution and deviant sexuality, and the figure of the junkie. In this vein, the Nickel boys and their relatives do ‘dirty work’. Selling off the supplies earmarked for black inmates, the students participate in ‘Community Service’, named for its exploitation of prison labour and theft of the black boys’ resources. This bleak outlook is only accentuated by the employment of the Community Service team in clean-up campaigns, reminding us that, as eco-racism studies have shown, marginal communities and those employed in waste disposal are exposed to concentrated health risks. Whitehead litters the Community Service excursions with various cynical details. Garbagemen become garbage men; in their most on-the-nose deployment, the prisoners take on the post-Independence Day clean-up, dealing with what is left behind in the name of liberty. In another, they paint Southern houses ‘Dixie White’ circling back not only to the central image of the White House, but also to Ralph Ellison’s seminal Invisible Man, and its Liberty Paint Company.
In Invisible Man, Ellison’s obsession with trash culminates in the vision of an elderly black couple relegated to the trash heap of urban progress, evicted from their apartment and stranding in the street, thronged by their belongings described like detritus. Tracing a history from Ellison’s post-war moment, through the Civil Rights era and contemporary period both portrayed in the text, Whitehead undercuts any narrative of progress. At Nickel, new arrivals are tagged as ‘Grubs’; as larvae, they are fundamental to the breakdown of waste, and repulsive in their connection to it. Similarly, Elwood’s grandmother is a cleaner at the Richmond Hotel, where black staff are largely dishwashers; fellow inmate Jaimie’s father works for a vacuum cleaner company, while his mother sweeps up at the Coca-bottling plant, where she is like those bodies are littered among soda bottles. In the novel, in the prison system, and in widely held perceptions of ethnic minorities, material and symbolic attachments to waste form a vicious cycle.
Whitehead grounds this imagery historically when the main character, after his escape, makes his way in New York as a removals man, where ‘the crew from Horizon Moving had dibs before the junkman’. White flight out of a city heaving with trash during the 1968 and 1975 bin strikes underscores the link between ethnic influx and accumulating garbage. Whitehead reminds us that wealthy whites are in a position to withdraw to the suburbs, and just as New York’s more commercial areas were able to hire contractors to collect their rubbish during the strikes, it is the novel’s white elite who have the privilege of decluttering. Historically, the strikes themselves were highly racially charged: 1968 saw high-profile strikes sweeping the nation, featuring principally African American sanitation forces calling for better wages and union recognition. In Memphis, where strikes were highly influenced by events in New York, the associations with waste that render black lives disposable are immortalised in the figure of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated while supporting the campaign. While the 1975 strikes didn’t possess the same political valence, Whitehead capitalises on their coincidence with July 4th to underscore the exceptions built into American ideals of liberty, justice and democracy. In this section, the novel is explicitly historically situated where rubbish collectors are contesting their devaluation, and at a time civil rights and environmental legislation start to be thought together.
As Whitehead shows us, the prison system runs into a problem where its wasted lives prove useful. Nickel is based on the prison-industrial complex, where prison labour is exploited for profit. The boys not only undertake ‘Community Service’, but also participate in agricultural, publishing, and brick-manufacturing industries. Throughout, Whitehead alludes to the presumption of debt which structures the lives of the convicts, and African American communities at large. Services provided by Nickel are glossed as ‘the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer of the burden of the boys’ upkeep’, just as former graduates are kept as indentured servants in the town to pay off their ‘debt’. Indeed, an early passage outlining the fate of Elwood’s extended family describes how each relative was made to ‘pay’ for their lack of deference to the white man. There exists a long history of conceiving of African American freedom in terms of debt: in the Reconstruction Era, imprisonment resulted from the inability to pay punitive fines for the violation of newly instated Black Codes, thereby criminalising newly emancipated people. Whitehead variously terms Nickel’s White House ‘The Ice Cream Factory’, augmenting this rhetoric of just desserts delivered by state power. But in a later scene, which lingers on a cherubic white baby messily devouring chocolate ice cream, we are left wondering how the consumption of prison goods tallies with the rationale of waste disposal. There’s a central tension in how the prisoner is conceived: as productive or useless. That image of the slave ship which kicks off part two sets up this contradictory value system: the discarded slave embodies garbaged life, and yet its most famous instances (for instance, the 1781 Zong massacre) were motivated by guaranteeing the insurance return on the slave. It is in the interests of the prison-industrial complex to designate Elwood as waste, in a paradoxical means to extort his production value.
The recent example set by Rehan Staton, a Maryland garbage collector who was this month admitted to Harvard Law, offers a salient instance of triumph in the face of adversity, and against a simplified waste/value binary. The Nickel Boys is concerned with how we conceive of the meaning of trash, and as the story progresses, the boys learn to reclaim and make use of it. In one instance, the schoolmasters ‘sent Elwood with a team to clean out the basement of the schoolhouse, and he found a set of Chipwick’s British Classics underneath some boxes’. As Elwood had planned to study literature, an alternative history asserts itself, emphasising Elwood’s unrealised potential. Prior to his imprisonment, Elwood had similarly made the best of ‘scrap-rummaging’ from the school textbooks inherited from the wealthier white school, where the pages are defaced with racist slurs. He wins a collection of encyclopaedias which turn out to be largely blank, but makes use of what little information they offer, and uses it as a workbook, writing himself into official records. Salvaging waste becomes a way of reimagining wasted lives: Elwood is the wrong side of the railing, the wrong side of history, and trash redeems a space for him. It is only appropriate, then, that another such basement cleaning job should provide the means of Elwood’s escape. On Community Service, the boys find themselves assigned to clean the underground sleeping quarters for former Nickel boys indentured to the townspeople; again, the trash heap is a graveyard, where the old steamer trunk which likely doubles as a slave coffin is undifferentiated from ‘sixty years of junk’. It is here that Elwood decides to be a whistleblower, and his schoolmate devises an escape route based on sites that the boys have cleaned and painted. Following on from Whitehead’s previous work, the boys fashion an Underground Railroad, recuperating waste for their own use.
Those brutalised at the Florida School for Boys were of various races and backgrounds, and the violent misconduct suffered by each individual should be remembered. Whitehead’s attention to the black students serves to remind us that, in the case of ethnic minorities, individual suffering is frequently indicative of systematic persecution. George Floyd was murdered because Derek Chauvin did not recognise his life’s worth. It is true of countless others: Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, John Crawford, Jonathan Ferrell, to name just a few. In The Nickel Boys, garbage becomes a symbol for reconceiving value, a means by which to disentangle the boys’ voices from the trash heap and recover the stories of history’s castoffs. Dumpster diving can be redemptive. As Patricia Yaegar puts it, ‘in a world where hoarding other people’s throwaways can offer an appalling remediation for poverty […] trash turns into an instrument for refashioning or rediscovering an unassimilable past’.
TALLULAH GRIFFITH reads English and American Literature at Wadham. On a typical day, she has obliged her best friend by attending a Q&A with ‘Gary from Miranda,’ who, it transpired, she had confused with Giles Coren.
Art by Abigail Hodges