In segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis is a high school senior ready to go to college. However, one innocent mistake reverses his fate and brings him to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory and a grotesque chamber of horrors. In the Academy, Elwood is constantly inspired by the words of Martin Luther King to “be as good as anyone”, and he slowly forms his own understanding of the phrase “throw us in jail and we will still love you.”
The book is very emotional and well written. Based on a true story, it reveals another layer of cruelty of history when African Americans were segregated, racially profiled, and sent to brutal reformatory schools. The book questions justice, freedom, and racial equality of the Jim Crow South in the 20th Century even a hundred years after the Civil War.
The power of faith
— book review of The Nickel Boys
When at loss of power and under oppression, the strongest tool is not violence but is the mind itself. In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead uses the character Elwood, a character inspired by Martin Luther King who believes himself to be “as good as anyone”, to embody such an argument. The powerful scenes of Elwood remembering, thinking, and rethinking Dr. King’s words and the juxtaposition of the mental and physical oppression the character goes through demonstrate the power of faith for African Americans under the dark Jim Crow laws and under the segregation period.
Despite the eventual failed attempt to disclose the truth of the Nickel Academy that tormented many innocent African Americans, the everlasting impact King’s speech has on Elwood has become a powerful way of resistance against injustice for the boy during hard times.
When Elwood is bullied, the At Zion Hill speech “gave him a language” and “Dr. King’s words filled the front room of the shotgun house.” Dr. King’s speech that “we must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful” gives the boy a sense of dignity and hope; Dr. King’s words have Elwood’s code “shape, articulation, and meaning.”
In the darkest time, Elwood is empowered by the speech, which gives him an inalienable mental strength that is also expressed through physical strength. The juxtaposition of the realism of the book and the reflection upon Martin Luther King’s words in italicized lines form powerful and impressive scenes of resilience in the book.
Elwood has not only learned to be confident and strong, but also has he become generous and forgiving from repeating Dr. King’s speech on his mind. Inspired by the phrase “throw us in jail, and we will still love you”, he believes that the capacity to suffer would eventually bring justice to society. After leaving the dreadful and unlawful Nickel Academy, Elwood wanted to publicize the brutality of the Academy, and Dr. King’s words again come up: “We will met your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.”
When reality hits Elwood hard and when he begins to doubt the practicality of carrying out generous love for even the worst enemies, Elwood is again inspired by the impactful words of Dr. King. Elwood recites the famous line, “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The mental power he gains from the words of the “reverent” goes beyond giving him the strong mentality to endure abuse and injustice; the power has taught him to defeat the haters by forgiving them.
When the world continued to tell him that not to love, trust, or stand up, he has determined to love, believing that such love will be returned; he will trust in the righteous path, which will lead him to deliverance; finally, he will not give up fighting because things will eventually change.
Martin Luther King’s speech empowers the protagonist in the book to stand out, resist, and also be kind to the oppressors, and the mental strength of Elwood Curtis encourages the audience to have faith and use love as a cure, not hate.
information: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead