Last Updated September 5, 2023.
America’s Treatment of the Black Body
Though the novel itself is set in the early 1960s, it conjures the entire history of America’s treatment of black people, from chattel slavery to the "Three-Fifths Compromise" of the 1787 Constitutional Convention to modern-day victims of racism and police brutality, such as Eric Garner, who gasped "I can't breathe" as a police officer pinned him to the sidewalk on a New York street in 2014. In fact, Whitehead’s inspiration for the novel came from a true story about bodies discovered in a hidden graveyard in Marianna, Florida, at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, where nearly seventy-five graves were uncovered. That seventy-five individuals were tossed into a mass grave speaks to the disposability with which America treats black bodies: they are “objects” to be used for labor and then tossed away, anonymous and forgotten. By giving these individuals a story in the fictionalized Nickel Academy—and making those anonymous bodies into living characters with histories, feelings, and life stories—Whitehead exposes the gross inhumanity of the practice of throwing human bodies out as if they are trash. The book, then, by extension, asks us to consider those other groups who have been oppressed, mistreated, and abused: indigenous people, whose homes were pillaged and stolen; the Japanese during WWII, who were forced into internment camps; and others who have suffered at the hands of a white majority that failed to see the human and instead saw only “race.” “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness,” a character in the novel says, because white America seems to constantly be sending the opposite message. Indeed, the US was quite literally built on the backs of slaves, yet the bodies of those slaves were treated with gross indignity even in death.
The Impossibility of Passivity in the Face of Inhumanity
When Elwood is first sentenced to the Nickel Academy, he tells himself that "he just had to keep doing what he'd always done: act right" and he’ll be able to leave Nickel relatively unscathed. Of course, this plan is an impossibility once he realizes the horrors that go on at the academy and then experiences a night of torture himself after trying to break up two fighting boys: “The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn't need to be embellished.” After learning that the world judges him not for who he is but for what he looks like, Elwood begins dreaming of escape, a “flight to freedom” that will allow him to leave the nightmarish school behind. Whitehead is explicitly drawing a connection between Elwood’s hope to escape and the freedom journey of the slave: both long to escape a social hierarchy in which the color of their skin renders them at the bottom of the heap, and to succumb to a life of being told one don’t even have control over one’s own body is a fate worth than death. As much as Elwood wants to simply do his time and leave, he learns—with the help of Turner, a cynical fellow student—that being treated without dignity is too dehumanizing to ignore.
The Problem of Erasing and Rewriting History
“Even in death the boys were trouble,” the novel opens. From...
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the very start, Whitehead addresses America’s penchant to bury the less flattering elements of its history in order to tell itself a better narrative about the past. Yet the very belief that allowed slavery to flourish for as long as it did—racial superiority of the white person to the black person—continues to proliferate in the America of 2019, so clearly the country has not truly grappled with, or learned from, its “original sin,” as much as governing officials may claim to want to make “reparations.” In fact, Black Lives Matter and other activist movements do the work of reminding the public of these horrific historical truths, yet the country still struggles to learn what 250 years of history shows. By “excavating” that which people prefer to bury and baring these graves (both real and fictional) to stark daylight, Whitehead refuses to let America continue to silence, dismiss, ignore, or warp the narrative truth, for such a practice leads to the state in which the country now finds itself: deeply divided, deeply mistrustful, and deeply suspicious of the “other.” To “whitewash” history is to believe a lie and permit the same horrors to be enacted over and over again. Let’s dig up the ghosts, Whitehead urges in this novel, and face the truth. Let the skeletal remains, as horrifying as they are, be properly acknowledged and named so we can move forward.