Colson Whitehead

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

One of the most important works by Colson Whitehead is his first novel, The Intuitionist. The novel was published in 1999 and is considered an example of speculative fiction.

The term "speculative fiction" has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating "consensus reality" of everyday experience.

The novel is about a young woman named Lila Mae Watson who is an inspector of elevators. One of the elevators she has recently inspected fails disastrously, causing people to wonder if she is to blame. It does not help that Lila Mae is a woman and a person of color. The principle that guides her in her work is called Intuitionism, the rules of which are centered around the belief that one can sense whether an elevator will function properly rather than examine it based on its physical properties. Because of the accident (paired with her gender and skin color), Lila Mae must prove that not only was the accident not her fault, but that things should not be valued or judged based solely on outward appearances. The elevators and the idea of Intuitionism act as symbols for race and racism. The book went on to receive the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award and helped Whitehead to become a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel titled John Henry Days. The novel draws parallels between its protagonist—J. Sutter, who is an investigative journalist who goes to West Virginia to write about a festival celebrating John Henry—and the local folk hero himself, famous for his work as a steel-driver. Sutter goes in search of the truth about the real John Henry, and Whitehead juxtaposes Sutter’s story with Henry's by mirroring it in order to explore themes around racism, bigotry, and conflicting ideas about race in the Unites States. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, John Henry Days won the 2002 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award for Honor Books, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys was published in 2019. The story draws inspiration from the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. The Dozier school was a reform school with a history of abuse, torture, and rape of the boys who attended it. Any allegations against the school were covered up while the atrocities continued. The school was eventually shut down in 2011; an investigation was launched and resulted in dozens of unmarked graves of former students being found onsite. In the novel, the school has been renamed Nickel Reformatory. This is where the protagonist of the novel, Elwood Curtis, is sent after being falsely accused and found guilty of stealing a motorcycle. One of the biggest themes in the story is around racial oppression and how those in power abuse and subjugate those that they view as inferior.

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