TIME

AUTHOR COLSON WHITEHEAD REMINDS US TO SEE OURSELVES

Whitehead’s ninth book, a harrowing story of an abusive Jim Crow–era reform school, will be published July 16

THERE’S COLSON WHITEHEAD UP ahead, minutes before our arranged time, dawdling on the corner of 126th Street and Fifth Avenue, dressed in slim jeans and Chelsea boots, his dreadlocks cutting a clean line across his back. I’m content to nurse a half-block distance between us and observe. Whitehead’s walk, by the way, is not what the youngsters would call swaggerific. Swagger is imitative, and the way Whitehead moves evokes less a simulacrum of a strut than it does acceptance of his stature and physiology, most notably that he’s long and lean and a little knock-kneed. He stops on 127th Street, and since I’m a few paces behind him and don’t want him to glance back and peep me trailing, I call his name. He snatches wired headphones out of his ears and reaches out for a handshake—our first. “Nice to meet you,” I say. “I think we’re headed in the same direction.” He smiles, and the sun hits the blue of his glasses. “Yes, I think so,” he says, and in tandem, we mosey the half block it takes to reach our destination: the Langston Hughes House.

Whitehead is on his way to a landmark place in African-American history in more ways than one. Three years ago, he published a novel, The Underground Railroad, that shot him to literary stardom. With it, he became only the second writer of color and sixth writer ever to win both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the same novel. The book, which imagines an actual railroad for the transportation of enslaved people in search of freedom, was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection, sold over a million copies and earned the praise of President Obama. Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, is adapting it into a limited series.

Where do you go after that? For Whitehead, it’s the era of Jim Crow. His next novel, The Nickel Boys, out July 16, follows two boys struggling through their sentences at an abusive reform school under the specter of segregation in the 1960s. It’s a

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