Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead to read from his new novel

author Colson Whitehead
book cover

Colson Whitehead became a literary phenomenon after the publication of The Underground Railroad in 2016--a work of speculative fiction about a young woman who escapes a life of slavery on a Georgia plantation and heads north on a subterranean train.

The novel won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, along with rave reviews from almost everyone. The New York Times Book Review described it as “stunningly daring.” NPR hailed it as “An American masterpiece.” Oprah Winfrey called it “heart-stopping.” And Barrack Obama said it was “terrific.”

On September 19, Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz will present a special reading with Whitehead from his latest book, The Nickel Boys, at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz.

The Nickel Boys examines another slice of institutionalized racism in American history, this time told through the story of two boys at an abusive reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. The novel is based on the true story of a reform school in the Florida panhandle that existed for more than a century and traumatized thousands of children.

"The Nickel Boys chronicles the depths of racism, carceral torture, and child abuse in modern America” said Tyler Stovall, dean of humanities at UC Santa Cruz. “As the nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of slavery, Colson Whitehead's novel serves as a powerful reminder of the fact that the after-effects of black slavery lingered long after the Emancipation Proclamation, and in some forms are still with us today."

"With the recent passing of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead is perhaps the preeminent novelist of the black experience writing in America today,” added Stovall. “His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad is a classic blend of history and fantasy."

UC Santa Cruz history professor Greg O’Malley noted that the popularity of Whitehead’s work speaks not only to his talents as a writer, but also to Americans’ interest in the history of slavery.

“I think many people understand, on an almost unconscious level, that slavery is the original sin behind many modern American problems, so we gravitate to novels like The Underground Railroad to understand ourselves” said O’Malley. “Fiction offers an especially valuable way to engage with slavery because historical methodologies are often stymied by the lack of sources from enslaved people’s perspectives. Very few enslaved people had the opportunity to write their own stories for posterity, in letters, diaries, etc., so as a historian of slavery, I have very limited access to the voices and perspectives of enslaved women and men.”

“Novelists, especially novelists like Whitehead who are deeply knowledgeable about American history and culture, can open windows on aspects of the past through imagination that historians can’t open with textual evidence,” he added. “The same interest that draws us to Whitehead’s novels, I think, is what currently has Americans fascinated by the anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia, 400 years ago. We know that the legacies of slavery define us, in many ways, and we want to understand how.”

Raised in Manhattan, Whitehead worked at the Village Voice, writing reviews of television, books, and music, after graduating from Harvard College. His work has also appeared in such publications as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harpers’ and Granta. His previous books include The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York.

Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) is currently working on a television series based on The Underground Railroad for Amazon. Whitehead recently told the New York Times that he “offers occasional advice on the adaptation, but isn’t heavily involved,” adding “I wrote it once and I don’t want to write it again.”


Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Humanities Institute present a reading with author Colson Whitehead on Thursday, September 19, beginning at 7 p.m., at the Peace United Church in Santa Cruz (900 High Street). For more information and to purchase tickets, visit The Humanities Institute web site. (Note: free entry and a book will be given out to the first 50 UCSC students to attend, with student ID required at the door).