Posted by Wesley D’Souza on July 01, 2020

Make a career of humanity,” this is what a two-time Pulitzer winner urges us to do today. In the world in which we live there is no dearth of divisive obstacles. The human mind has categorized and compartmentalized what is up for perception; in its extremes, this categorization has led to some of the most oppressive and exploitative systems of governance. In uncertain times like the one in which we live turn to the voices, we trust the most to make sense for us out of the chaos that pervades our world.

When reading The Nickel Boys, a novel set in 1960s Florida one is brought face-to-face with the grotesque reality of racism and segregation. Elwood Curtis, an ambitious young man, is all set to apply to a local black college when one tiny, innocent mistake derails his plans for the future and lands him in a correctional facility that promises to make an honest man out of him. But the nightmarish reality of it is that anyone who would dare to stand up in the face of a corrupt and degenerate institution would ‘disappear’. An ideal young man- beloved to family, adored by his teachers, thought of in amicable terms by the rest of his peers, Elwood Curtis finds himself, to use the old adage, in the wrong place at the wrong time. One simple act gets him thrown into an institution that treats its inmates with a severed hand; the facade of z correctional facility is a barely ill-maintained one.

In clear, eloquent prose, Colson Whitehead presents to us a canvas on which is painted a very difficult painting. Difficult, because of its subject matter. Segregation and racism which was woven into the very fabric of America and other colonies created a breeding ground for contempt and hatred of a single community based on the colour of one’s skin. Perhaps it was the freakish nature of the violence that lent itself to the drestruction of a single community that prompts Whitehead to avoid fantastical labnguage; the problems themselves read like something that one could only have imagined. But this was the clear and present reality. The story that we have to stare in the eye is a terrifying one. One inwardly flinches at the clear and brutal descriptions that find themselves into the story.

One finds themselves growing quite fond of the characters that Whitehead molds with his words. Their development is steady. The book itself is emotive and you are exposed to the emotions of the characters. At some point, their emotions become your own. On the other hand, you come to despise the other malevolent characters and everything they stand for.

Books like The Nickel Boys are important when we stand more in danger of repeating history by forgetting it. But now, having brought our attention to it, the book also sensitizes us towards the problems of a community as if they were our own.

The Nickel Boys won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2020. This is Colson Whitehead’s second Pulitzer, the first being for The Underground Railroad…

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