There are two sides to the eponymous “invisibility” in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. The first originates out of systemic refusals of social recognition to articulations of Black personhood, and the second refers to the narrator’s personal inability to construct a tangible “form” of Black identity to supplement this lacuna. In Ellison’s novel, the invisible man’s negotiations with the double-edged structure of invisibility allows him to carve out a compromised existence through a sophisticated questioning of the very norms of visibility and access that determine the category of universal personhood.

In Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, however, the philosophical solace of such self-reflexivity is wholly swept under the inexorable force of an unfolding racialised history that gains traction by brutalising and burying several others. It is no accident then that The Nickel Boys opens with a scene of excavation. Excavation of bodies, of calcified narratives of torture borne in their fissured remains, of the material detritus of lives ruined by a corrupt and bigoted juvenile justice system. In their granular evisceration, Black bodies become an irrepressible force resisting erasure, and the earth turns chronicler of a forbidden archive.

A literary archaeology

Based on a set of archaeological investigations carried out by a research team from the University of South Florida between 2012 and 2016, that led to the gruesome discovery of the remains of nearly eighty bodies buried in various unmarked locations in and around the sprawling campus of the Arthur Dozier School for Boys in the panhandle town of Marianna, Florida, Whitehead’s novel participates in what went on to become a multidisciplinary work of forensic inquiry into and reconstruction of the horrific legacy of racism in the American south.

Like Dr Erin Kimmerle and her team worked tirelessly through a century of accumulated sediment and collective amnesia to bring to the surface evidence of unfathomable atrocities, and, more important, create avenues of mourning, acknowledgement, reparation and closure for victims and survivors, Whitehead embarks on a literary archaeology of the troubled intersectional terrain of American reform school pedagogy during the Jim Crow years.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, we follow Elwood Curtis along the fraught road of academic and intellectual progress which is, unbeknownst to the idealistic Curtis, already internally distorted by the schizophrenic structure of youthful aspiration stymied by extreme social marginality.

The second part takes place in Nickel Academy, a fictional reconstruction of the infamous Florida Industrial School for Boys later rechristened as the Arthur Dozier School for Boys, where Curtis and Turner, with their complementary personalities, bear soul-crushing witness to the macabre machinations of a racist and violent carceral system thinly veiled as reform.

The third part interweaves the past with the present, a dark, suspenseful climax juxtaposed with the mundane persistence of profound trauma in the bodies and minds of survivors, the moral imperative to create a continuous testimony of oppression and resistance set alongside a final vision of an altered social topography poignantly haunted by lives and liberties lost to injustice.

School for torture

Elwood Curtis’s “sin” as a Black subject, his tragic flaw, is his fantasy of redemption in political recognition and personhood, one that Ellison’s narrator strategically keeps at bay. This dream is confirmed in the rhetoric and representations of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s impassioned speeches about dignity, self-determination, and the substantiality of Black identity playing on loop on Curtis’ turntable, and the images of protesting urban youth in the glossy pages of Time magazine that he obsessively consumes.

Yet, early on in the narrative, Curtis’s adherence to King’s paradigm of selfhood based in the liberatory promise of Christian ethics and personal improvement through the tools of education and self-expression, is ironically deflated by his material circumstances, and his own failure to discern the racial underpinnings of classic humanist ideals.

“Optimism made Elwood as malleable as the cheap taffy below the register”, we are told. His encyclopaedias are blank dummies salvaged from a hotel room, his second-hand textbooks donated by neighbourhood white kids, their pages defaced with racist slang. Access to the world of knowledge and the instruments of its actualisation, is blocked and mediated by smokescreens that reflect to Curtis the colour of his skin as a marker of irreducible difference and unbridgeable alienation.

Elwood Curtis is caught in this tension between a desire for transcendence of the materiality of race, a flight from social and historical determinisms on the one hand, and the inevitability of a racial matrix that keeps drawing him back into its gri(n)d. In actively pursuing the path of cultural capital and social mobility, he goes against the grain of history and pushes against the weight of a tradition founded on Black invisibility, a transgression for which he is punished by both communities.

The routine abuse, torture, humiliation, and exploitation at Nickel Academy are not simply part of its punitive code. These enflesh Curtis through the vector of pain as a body open to battery and abjection, and force him to reckon with the matter of his racially inscribed identity. To be incarcerated for Curtis is not only to lose the freedom to exist in the world, it is to be doubly deprived through an interment in the very ghetto of Black invisibility that he longs to escape.

Excavating punishment

Whitehead’s prose is sharp, visceral, at times almost forensic, cutting away at the obstinacy of forgetting with feather light precision, refusing embellishment or sentimentality, its compressed economy of expression all the more shattering in its layering of what is said with the tissue of what remains unspeakable. In his seminal book on western penology, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes emerging modern attitudes towards punishment as marked by the disappearance of the public spectacle of torture, and its replacement with the discourse of reform. The task of the modern prison system is no longer the infliction of gratuitous pain on the body of the condemned as a symbolic enactment of the state’s power.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, punishment becomes the site of arbitrating upon the moral condition of the criminal’s soul and taking up the task of correcting its deviance through a suspension of the subject’s rights to spatial and bodily liberties. In this journey from public spectacle to private intervention, carceral punishment acquires an ally in the science of creating normative subjects through the micro-practices of disciplining, regulation, and surveillance of the imprisoned body.

In Nickel Academy torture doesn’t simply disappear. It occupies a conspicuous margin that permeates the topography of the school through the collective trauma absorbed into bodies where skin and bones are broken and scarred, as an unspoken terror that becomes a spontaneous ghostly barricade around grounds that are otherwise unfenced, and in the form of a soundscape of control that the boys learn to decipher and replay in solitude.

The apparatus of torture: blood-spattered walls, a pillow pungent with countless mouths biting into it, the confused acoustics of industrial machinery merging with whiplash and flayed flesh, the sirens and flash-lights at 2 am, and the phantom presence of an outfield where a tree rigged with iron chains is a cipher of atrocities beyond language – these serve as signposts of violence normalised and embedded into the texture of white supremacist architectures of moral and social pedagogy.

Nickel Boys is deeply invested in the material politics of racial violence, how physical spaces and everyday habitus are saturated, sometimes insidiously, with technologies of racial profiling, discrimination, and control, how apparently progressive geographies participate in the proliferation of racial injury, and how brick and mortar, soil and compost carry traces of an unseen, evacuated or concealed history.

The agony of witnessing

Curtis harbours an unflinching belief in the transformative power of words: the words he reads and rereads like talismans of a better future in his incomplete encyclopaedia, the words of the English literary tradition that he dreams of encountering at college, the words of Martin Luther King that break away from their contexts and haunt him like a conscience, the words of personal testimony that he eventually invests his faith in, the words that betray and abandon him in his worst suffering turning into the obscene, obscure hieroglyphics of collective agony on the walls of his cell, and the words that return like a glimmer of hope puncturing moments of terminal desperation.

His words of protest fall on deaf ears and one boy’s dream of wording his way into the privileges of visibility, recognition, and personhood are shot down by the prohibitive framework of racial destiny. And yet as survivors, as eager or reluctant witnesses, for the White House boys, grown men with tortured youths, words remain singular sources of redressal.

The final parts of The Nickel Boys are about the challenges of bearing witness, in language, and through disinterred memory. In a changed, but not entirely rectified society, as well-known secrets and consensual silences around racist violence are exposed to scrutiny, Turner faces an equally uphill task in the responsibility to turn the privileges of social recognition into a crucible for conferring narrative agency to diminished and invisibilised Black subjectivities.

In his book, Remnants of Auschwitz Giorgio Agamben theorises the linguistic and ethical difficulties of bearing witness and serving testimony to unspeakable atrocities. According to Agamben, the “facts” of what took place in Auschwitz cannot be justifiably captured through the resources of narrative and imagination. Auschwitz belongs to the category of a supra-real that defies attempts at mediation and subverts the normative boundaries of realism, a real more real than our temporally and culturally contingent understanding of reality.

However it is not only the nature of what transpires inside the Nazi camps that confounds representation. Speechlessness occupies a much broader terrain, becoming the “lacuna” or space of non-coincidence between the existential truth of Auschwitz and our cognitive and epistemic resources with which to translate it. The act of providing testimony to “inhuman” events serves to bear witness, beyond the facts of the event itself, to the inadequacy of testimony’s own capacity for full and transparent disclosure. To bear witness then is to repeatedly enact the constitutive breakdown and failure of the testimonial apparatus.

Testimony, in Nickel Boys, even in the world’s readiness to listen and respond, does not imply a utopian or celebratory premise. Rather, in order to testify, the storyteller-witness has to undertake a painful archaeology of the residual persistence of abuse in his own life as recurring trauma and its bodily and psychological manifestations. Turner’s testimony is halting, fragmented, exhausted, but one that promises to upturn another well entrenched stone in the unequal terrain that he inhabits.

Whitehead’s accomplishment in this slim but powerful novel is a timely and necessary exposure of the racial dimensions of reform school atrocities, while bringing to light a lost archive of Black lives and their intimate histories. Through its excoriating depiction of torture and exploitation, we also encounter scenes of radical tenderness, stolen pleasure, and the fragile but undeniable sense of community.

Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Fleet.