Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas worries about everything. A lot. His new book, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,’ takes you into the brain of the most anxious black man in Pittsburgh

Damon Young is a Very Smart Brotha who is riddled with neuroses. And now, everyone who buys a copy of his first solo book will know all about them.

In What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, Young offers, among other things, an accounting of the ways he has bumbled through life narrowly avoiding death by embarrassment. At a recent event in New York, Young found himself mortified anew when journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones asked him to read aloud the most cringe-inducing part of the whole book. It’s a paragraph in which Young shares the details of a hapless sexual encounter he describes as “an hour of attempting to re-enact the saddest Penthouse letter ever.”

Besides being the author of the new memoir and essay collection, Young is the co-founder of the popular site Very Smart Brothas. He’s one of the internet’s funniest social critics, offering opinions on everything from when black people are allowed to be ashy in public (during a polar vortex) to the correlation between being a black Republican and possessing a jacked-up hairline.

What Doesn’t Kill You tells the story of Young’s life in Pittsburgh as a kid who always felt slightly out of place. He grew up in the ’hood until his parents could afford to move to a quieter neighborhood in a better school district. He won a basketball scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He became a teacher and eventually a writer. But no matter where he went, Young insisted on overthinking everything and generally being as awkward as possible. His book tells us how he got through it, got married and started accepting the things that once made him insecure about himself, his masculinity and his blackness.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

When the word “neurotic” comes up, a deep-voiced former college basketball player isn’t the first image that comes to mind. Did you ever take antianxiety meds as a kid?

My antianxiety medication is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and maybe The Godfather and maybe an hour or two of basketball. So I guess I self-medicate in a way. You think of neuroses in culture and you think of someone like David Sedaris or Woody Allen or even [Jerry] Seinfeld. It’s a white person that you’re thinking about. White, middle- to upper-middle-class sort of person. Very often a man. And basically the sort of person who can afford to be anxious, who can afford to have neuroses because they don’t necessarily have these deep traumas happening in their lives. They have space to overthink, and they create work in that space. People almost expect that of them. It’s a part of the spectrum. Everyone has this spectrum of behavior that you assign to them, and when you look at a person like Woody Allen, that fits the spectrum. If Woody Allen won the slam dunk contest in the McDonald’s All American contest, you’d be like, ‘Holy s—.’ That doesn’t fit.

I think, with this book, people might be surprised by how deep and how vulnerable and how much I talk about that anxiety and nervousness and self-cautiousness. I come in a different package. Those neuroses are not unique to white people or upper-middle-class people. If anything, we probably deal with it on an even greater level because we have all of these major stressors from existing while black in America.

You write a lot about expectations about how you should behave and how you should treat women, like needing to distance yourself from being seen as “soft.” When did you begin to realize that there was something wrong with the narrow spectrum of feelings men and boys are allowed to express?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think about that. It’s almost like asking me, ‘When did you first realize you were black?’ I think a lot of young kids recognize that it’s bulls—, but even with that recognition, it takes a lot to go against the status quo and to subvert whatever expectations there are of you. So even while recognizing that this is performative, you still take part in it. You still have investment in it. You still want the fruits of it. You still want to be the guy that all the girls want. You still want to be the guy that all the other guys want to be.

You see these guys who are just so cool. And not just ballplayers, but Billy Dee f—ing Williams and Blair Underwood and Denzel [Washington]. Denzel was cool as f— in Glory! He was the coolest slave. (Laughs.) Even when he’s getting whipped, he’s got that one tear!

So you have this narrative about how black boys are socialized to be violent or to look at rappers or drug dealers or anyone who has that aura of violence around that. What might be more prevalent and even more dangerous is not the violence but the cool and seeing that as the ideal. If you aren’t that, or if you struggle to meet that, then something’s wrong with you. And the thing is, we all struggle to meet that. A small percentage exists. I mean, there are Billy Dees in the world. I think the vast majority of us are either really good at performing or not as good at performing or are like, ‘F— the performance.’

Did you give yourself a hard time for not being able to live up to these arbitrary standards?

Yeah, I definitely did. I felt like I was less than. I definitely felt that my wiring was misfiring, that something was just off if I couldn’t be the way I saw so many of my peers being. … I don’t anymore. It helps that I received validation. I’ve been able to build a career off of writing and writing about these sorts of things. I have great friendships. I have this great wife and children. I think once I started writing and having space to navigate what’s happening in my head and have other people on that ride with me and who are fans on that ride with me … they’re like, ‘Oh, I get why he acts that way.’ That’s been extremely helpful. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know. My answer to your question might be different.

You wrote something on Very Smart Brothas that generated more backlash than I expected when you said straight black men are the white people of black people. What happened after you published that?

Before I even answer, I have to say, I’m not the first person to say that. A Facebook friend said that. Other people used the exact same phrasing. Many feminist scholars have … made that point. I don’t want to take credit for being the first or the second or the third or the fourth.

The reaction was actually overwhelmingly positive. Most of the people who read that and sat with it and thought about it either agreed immediately or eventually. It’s just that the people who were offended by that were very loud. [Author] bell hooks invited me to meet with her at her institute at Berea College. We had a community talk with me, her and 30 other people in the room about intersectionality and privilege and power dynamics.

Do you think part of the reason this got so much attention is because you’re a guy?

Oh, definitely. And that actually just proves the point.

How does your thinking about gender and race influence how you raise your kids?

I’m not sure if I would have been a different parent if I had my daughter eight years ago or 10 years ago. I don’t know. I have money now. That definitely helps dictate what sort of parent I am. I can afford day care and preschool and anything that she needs, within reason. I’m not going to buy her a whale, or a literal baby shark. But anything she needs, I can do that now. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I think having money and the flexibility that comes with it dictates decision-making more than anything else.

That’s what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

A lot of your writing revolves around racial essentialism. Let’s say your son came up to you and said, “Dad, I wanna be a professional rock climber.”

I would buy him some knee pads and some elbow pads. If that’s where your heart is, that’s where your heart is. I would take him to the indoor rock climbing spot. I wouldn’t do it with him, but I’d take him.

A lot of people talk about sports as a way to turn off the anxiety nozzle in their brain. Is that how basketball was for you?

It’s how basketball still is for me, where I can just lose myself in the game. There’s a thing I realized that I do that’s unique to me. I’ve been doing this my whole life: I do not get water between games. I just play. So if I’m at the court and I’m playing pickup and there’s a break and guys get their water or their Gatorade or whatever, I stay on the court. I’m still shooting, still just focused. I’m that annoying m—–f—– who’s like, ‘Aight, c’mon, let’s go! Who got next?’

Do you not get cramps? Are you part camel?

It’s almost like an addiction, where you’re just doing a thing and you’re not cognizant of time or space or anything else. You’re just really hyperfocused on this thing. Like you can be at a slot machine for four hours and not even get up to go to the bathroom. That’s what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

I’m not part camel. I’m not a minotaur. As soon as I leave the court, I go and I drink, like, 18 Gatorades. I’ll get something to eat, and then I’ll go home and I’ll eat again. So it’s obviously not healthy, me doing this, but I just need to stay on the court. Losing myself and submerging myself in that is a form of self-care.