Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead visits Scripps to talk new book, “The Nickel Boys”

An African American man stands at a podium giving a speech.
Acclaimed author Colson Whitehead visited Scripps College Sept. 17 to discuss his new novel “The Nickel Boys.” (Courtesy of VCU Libraries)

“I usually spend Tuesday nights alone in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead said to a full house in Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium on Tuesday night. 

Whitehead, author of the acclaimed novel “The Underground Railroad,” visited Scripps to discuss his latest novel, “The Nickel Boys,” about two boys in the Jim Crow-era South and their experiences at the Dozier School for Boys, a Floridian reform school.

The novel is based on the 111-year history of Dozier, long-known for its mistreatment of schoolchildren and more recently recognized as the site where 55 unmarked graves of past students were discovered in 2014.

“[2014] was a very rough year,” Whitehead recalled. “I came across [the Dozier School] report, and Michael Brown … and Eric Garner had been killed by white policemen.”

Untold stories of racial injustice acted as a conduit for Whitehead’s early conception of “The Nickel Boys.”

“If two cell phones captured [Brown’s and Garner’s] deaths, how many more are we not seeing?” he said. “If there’s one Dozier School, how many other schools do we not hear about?”

And, despite the fictional bent of “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead noted the relevance of the novel in its potential to echo other histories of racial injustice, such as mass incarceration and voter suppression. He made clear, though, that he is foremost a storyteller, not a historian.

“I have no obligation as a fiction writer to stay close to [facts]; I can deform them as much as I want … I’m not beholden to them, unlike journalists and nonfiction writers,” Whitehead said. 

Ultimately, he acknowledged that he did not want to speak on behalf of Dozier’s past students by trying to write with complete accuracy, citing his relative age and inability to ever perfectly understand the experiences of past Dozier students.

“I encountered the story in the present, so my introductions to the story were from people in their 60s and 70s,” Whitehead said. “So, even if it touches 10 percent of what happened and what happened to them, I’m glad I didn’t let them down.”

Though Whitehead said he was not beholden to factual history in his novels, he eventually returned to the significance of truth and history in fiction.

“Not shrinking from the truth [is important],” he said. “People are beautiful, but we’re also often quite ugly. That’s human history. That’s the human character. You can’t tell a story if you’re avoiding that.”

Several 5C student attendees mentioned the importance of Whitehead’s loyalty to uncovering hidden narratives. 

“Colson Whitehead spoke about the justice the world owes to those it has buried,” Sophia Haber PO ’23 said via message. “We need that right now.”

Audience members were also surprised to learn of organizations like the Dozier School.

“I was never made aware of specific institutions like [the Dozier School],” Terry Reed PZ ’23 said. “Going into the event, I didn’t really know [much], but walking out of it, I just went, ‘Wow.’”

Selena Lopez PO ’22 agreed, citing a general need for wider literary representation.

“The importance of representation in literature cannot be emphasized enough,” Lopez said via message. “Being able to connect through words because you … see parts of yourself in the story is such a meaningful part of [reading] literature, and [Whitehead] definitely made that possible.”

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