The Nickel Boys review: Racial injustice and the politics of forgetting

Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead is unflinching in depiction of juvenile detention centre

 US novelist Colson Whitehead won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

US novelist Colson Whitehead won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

From the colonisation of the American land mass in the 15th century to the proliferation of white ethno-nationalism today, racist violence in the US has long contradicted any notion of an American Dream. African-Americans in particular have endured centuries of systemic cruelty, weighed down as much by white middle-American apathy as by the institutional horror of slavery.

In The Underground Railroad, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Colson Whitehead tapped into an America at odds with itself over police violence against black citizens. He showed us that these problems began with slavery and continued into the modern era with structural inequalities enshrined in the southern states’ Jim Crow laws, FBI harassment of black peace activists such as Martin Luther King, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. In The Nickel Boys he continues the work of piecing together that jigsaw, through the exhumation of personal stories which white America would much rather forget.

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