Sometimes a story you hear grabs ahold of you and refuses to let go. For author Colson Whitehead, that story was the dark history of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a state-funded reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that operated for more than a century, despite reports of students being beaten and even killed. Thus, the East Hampton resident set aside his upcoming Harlem mystery novel to write The Nickel Boys, which is currently set to release in July 2019.
The Nickel Boys follows two Black teenagers Elwood Curtis and Turner. Elwood was a straight-A student on the path to higher education until an unfair justice system lands him in the reform school, Nickel Academy. In the clear allusion to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, the students must endure torture, neglect and sexual abuse. To cope, Elwood turns to the non-violent message of Martin Luther King Jr. but street-smart orphan and friend Turner thinks his friend’s idealism is sadly naive in a system clearly structured to oppose them. Their views diverge further apart as the plot goes on, leading to a major decision with profound consequences.
According to The New York Times, Whitehead first learned about the Florida reform school in 2014, three short years after it was shut down, reading horrifying reports of 50 unmarked graves and estimation that more than 100 people died there. In his research for the book, he read news accounts and memoirs written by survivors and discovered a website for alumni of the school where first person accounts were collected. With the book taking place during the days of Jim Crow laws, Whitehead highlights the helplessness of the Black community against injustices, while also shining a light on what the victims of Dozier went through.
His previous novel, The Underground Railroad, published to much acclaim in 2016, was another piece of fiction used to highlight a painful time in United States history. It received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year.