Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
Colson Whitehead gained widespread notoriety with the publication of his novel The Underground Railroad in 2016, though his first book debuted in 1999. In 2019, Whitehead wrote The Nickel Boys. Both novels trace the impact of slavery and its legacy in the United States.
In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead writes,
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.
Here, Whitehead exposes the hypocrisy inherent in the "land of the free." In order to create this place of freedom, colonizers murdered its indigenous people and then kidnapped Africans to build a country in which the slaves's ancestors would still endure racism despite being born as American citizens. To say that America's foundations are "murder, theft, and cruelty" is to reveal the rottenness at the core of an aspirational nation.
Also in The Underground Railroad, Colson writes, "Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth." Here, he captures the "whitewashing" of American history that helps make slavery palatable to its white population. The "useful delusion"—the narrative that Africans were "rescued" from their "primitive" lifestyle and "civilized" via their introduction to Christianity—is preferred to the "useless truth" of the horror of slavery, which seems to be a "useless truth" because nobody wants to talk about it or provide reparations for those who suffered as a result of it.
In The Nickel Boys, Elwood, the main character, reveres Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his speeches, which allow Elwood to see:
Africans persecuted by the white sin of slavery, Negroes humiliated and kept low by segregation, and that luminous image to come, when all those places closed to his race were opened.
From a young age, Elwood knows that his place in the world is connected to a legacy of oppression and that his skin color prevents him from going to places like theme parks and restaurants. As the novel continues, Elwood finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus is sent to Nickel Academy, where the staff rain down discipline as horrific as the abuses against slaves. Whitehead asks us to see how an awareness of racism isn't enough to stop the proliferation of it. That "luminous image" that Elwood dreams of in 1962 is still not a reality in 2019, Whitehead points out, and the Nickel boys deserve better.