By Allie Jane Bruce
When I was a kid, I luuuuuurved Maniac Magee. I swooned as I read about his superhuman athletic feats, howled with laughter at the zany idea that someone could be allergic to pizza, and cried like a baby when, halfway through the book, he walks silently out of town, his spirit crushed. I definitely had a crush on him. I read and re-read the book often enough to remember Jerry Spinelli’s mesmerizing, hilarious language and skillful employment of magical realism.
I recently re-read it for the first time in at least a decade, and the experience was both nostalgic and gut-wrenching. I remembered enough to be prepared for the White savior element, but it turns out there was a lot I had forgotten--and yet--internalized.
Before I go any farther, I need to say that while what follows is intensely critical, there is one part of this book that I still truly love, and her name is Amanda Beale. This smart-as-a-whip, book-loving, funny, kind, caring, and yet fallible Black girl is just about the only fully humanized and relatable character in the entire book. She is a grounding, heart-driven force in a story riddled with problems, and frankly, I think she deserves better.
Onto the criticism. Much of the book hinges on the tension between the East (Black) and West (White) sides of the fictional town of Two Mills. Maniac (whose real name is Jeffrey) seems determined to breach the divide by inserting his White self into the Black side of town. Chapter One, which features an orphaned Jeffrey running away from his life with an aunt and uncle who refuse to talk to each other, establishes the book’s primary theme: Jeffrey’s refusal to live in a world in which people divide themselves. Thus, the book sets up a problematic analogy, in likening segregation produced by generations of institutionalized racism and systemic oppression to a house in which stubborn Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan, who won’t get divorced because they’re “strict Catholics”, have “Two bathrooms. Two TVs. Two refrigerators. Two toasters.” (p. 6)
This is a racially privileged White person’s version of racism. This is a world in which racial differences are interpersonal and can therefore be pinned on people who refuse to speak to each other, not on systemic and structural inequities. A world in which there is only Black and White--no Native, Latinx, Asian, or multiracial people to complicate matters. An ahistorical world, in a fictional town in which Black people and White people really are separate but equal--and all it takes to breach these divisions is a plucky, racially colorblind White kid who dares to try. Indeed, the prologue asserts that Maniac’s “legacy”, his “monument”, is the fact that nowadays, “sometimes the girl holding one end of the rope is from the West side of Hector, and the girl on the other end is from the East side” (p. 2). This White savior mentality pervades the entire book.
As do stereotypes. I was struck by the stereotypical ideas and language that comprise Mars Bar, the Black, masculine, slang-heavy aggressor who calls Maniac “fishbelly” and “could back up traffic… while he took ten minutes to cross the street” (p. 37). Likewise, the McNabs are White, masculine, mean, bullying, old-school racists who live in a disgusting home (“Cans and bottles lay all over, along with crusts, peelings, cores, scraps, rinds, wrappers--everything you would normally find in a garbage can” [p. 131]) and are preparing a bunker for what they’re sure will be an upcoming invasion by Black East siders (Giant John McNab describes Black people as “bloodthirsty for whites, like Indians in the old days, Indians on a raid… They're today's Indians.” [p. 152]). Let’s face it, although Spinelli never uses the term--the McNabs are “white trash,” and convenient for any White people looking to distance themselves from racism (why self-examine yourself for racism when you can pin it on those types of White people?). Although some scenes, most of which occur at the end of the book, inject a degree of humanity into these characters, the relish and vividness with which Spinelli describes these caricatures is palpable.
These stereotypes--the "dangerous Black man," the disgusting, bigoted "white trash" family, and the "bloodthirsty" (and extinct) Indians--imprinted themselves in my subconscious. Most perniciously, they reinforced in me a faulty analysis of racism itself. Racism, 12-year-old-me would have said, is because some people, like Mars Bar and the McNabs, are mean to people who look different from them. Never mind that this version of racism--which erases systemic and structural injustices--depends on stereotypes of Black male aggressors and White male rednecks in its own explanation for why racism exists.
As I re-read Maniac Magee, I had a sudden flashback to my fourth-grade teacher reading it aloud. This teacher--a White woman--simply loved this passage:
“For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.”
She dwelt lovingly on this passage, and professed that it must have been a decisive one in winning Spinelli the Newbery medal (not that she could have actually known). Why, I ask now, would someone who clearly doesn’t understand the distinction between race and skin color--someone who is comfortable exotifying dark skin with a surplus of edible metaphors--feel entitled to write a book on the subject? And why would the Newbery committee give a gold medal to a book that rewrites and nullifies an entire cultural identity to suit White fancies?
(I’d like to go on a rant here about the overwhelming Whiteness of the Newbery, but that’s another post.)
There was one more particularly nightmarish scene I’d erased completely from my memory. About three-quarters through the book, Maniac challenges Mars Bar to accompany him to the West side. Mars Bar, whose pride will not allow him to pass up a dare, accepts. Maniac--who knows full well that the McNabs are White supremacists who are literally building a bunker and planning to stock it with automatic weaponry to use on Black people--brings Mars Bar to a birthday party at the McNabs. Yes, really. When Mars Bar asks about the bunker, Maniac tells him it’s a bomb shelter.
Unsurprisingly, the party does not go well, but thankfully, Mars Bar leaves physically intact. Afterwards, Maniac ponders, “What had he [Maniac] thought? What had he expected? A miracle?” As it turns out, by his own admission, Maniac didn’t give it a lot of thought.
Let’s unpack this. Maniac puts Mars Bar’s life in danger on a whim, an exercise in feel-good-y-ness that matters more to him than this Black kid’s life. Nowhere does Spinelli interrogate or problematize Maniac’s behavior. Maniac feels an intense sense of pride in Mars Bar (“this East End warrior” [p. 166]) for concealing his fear. Then, Maniac goes on his way, onto the next thing. His disregard for Mars Bar’s physical safety, and his inability to reflect on the fact that he put a life in danger, are, frankly, horrifying. Scenes like this are why it’s necessary to overtly and repeatedly assert that Black Lives do Matter.
During an open-fire-hydrant block party in which Maniac plays and dances with Black (East side) people, an elderly Black man approaches him. It is one of the most upsetting, chilling scenes in the book--certainly written to be more upsetting than the scene in which the McNabs attack Mars Bar. Spinelli describes the man’s voice as “deep and thick and sort of clotted, as though it had to fight its way through a can of worms before coming out”. He tells Maniac to go home. “Never enough, is it, Whitey? Just want more and more. Won’t even leave us our little water in the street… What happens when we go over there?” (p. 60-61) he asks, as he gestures to the White, West, side of town.
He’s got a point.