Colson Whitehead’s Next Novel Explores Abuse of Black Boys at Reform School

By Sameer Rao Oct 11, 2018

National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead ("The Underground Railroad") announced his next novel, "The Nickel Boys," with tweets of the title and cover art yesterday (October 10). 


rntWhitehead told The New York Times that he tabled plans for a Harlem crime novel to write "The Nickel Boys." The novel focuses on two Black teenage boys at the fictional Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school in 1960s Florida. The friends have different reactions to the rampant battery and sexual abuse of students; Elwood Curtis tries to channel the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and face the horrors with love, while Turner rejects Curtis’ hopefulness. "Their diverging views drive the plot, leading to a decision that has profound consequences," The Times reports.

The novelist took inspiration from the real life story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle. The Atlanta Black Star reported last year that the school for juvenile offenders had a longstanding reputation of abuse, including sexual violence and forced labor. It operated from 1900 to 2011; alumni testimonials eventually forced a state investigation, as well as an official apology from the Florida Legislature last year. Archeologists investigating the segregated campus grounds found 55 graves and other student remains that the school either glossed over or didn’t correctly mark in official records. According to the researchers’ 2016 report, 75 percent of the students acknowledged in death certificates were Black.

Whitehead told The Times that the Dozier School story stuck with him since he first learned of it in 2014. “It was a story I hadn’t heard before, and it was emblematic of so many injustices that go on every day that you never hear about,” he says. “The survivors are never heard from and the guilty are never punished, they live to a ripe old age while their victims are damaged for life. It seemed like a story worth taking up.”

"The Nickel Boys" will be released in the summer of 2019.