Friday, September 8, 2017

Looking Back: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

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.


Sam Bloom said...

I remember reading this one to my 3rd grade classes back when I was teaching. I was the only White person in the room. Makes me feel nauseous to think of the multiple ways that situation - White teacher reading the ultimate White savior book to a group of African American kids - underscores the White supremacy in our schools. Ugh. I wish I could go back and whap past-Sam in the back of the head. Makes me wonder: what percentage of U.S. public school teachers are White? And what percentage of the U.S. student population in public school classrooms are White? My guess is the first number would be over 90% and the second number would be around 50%. Again: ugh. Thanks for this review, Allie!

K T Horning said...

I remember this Newbery announcement as being quite surprising. It wasn't that no one had heard of the book, it was that so many people had not purchased it because it got pretty eh reviews (as I recall). So it was one of those Newbery books that I, like many, ordered and read after the announcement.

I had expected not to appreciate the book and was quite surprised that I did. But I gave it quite a different reading as an adult than you did as a child. I saw it as a rather clever, loose retelling of The Iliad, with Maniac as a classic larger-than-life Greek hero, and American blacks and whites standing in for the Greeks and the Trojans. (Big clue: Hector Street is the dividing line between them.) I loved that Maniac's heroic qualities were the stuff of contemporary childhood -- able to run really fast, able to move freely among different groups, able to untie any knot, etc. I didn't see him so much as a white savior but a hero of classic proportions.

As much as I appreciated the mythic qualities of the book when I read it, I remember being quite troubled by the portrayal of the African-American characters, so I knew it was not a book I would ever fully embrace or recommend. But I could at least understand why a Newbery Committee might have chosen it. (So, too, had the Boston Globe Horn Book Award committee a few months earlier.)

It's easy for adults to get caught up in the deeper literary aspects of a book they are considering for an award. Actually, it's kind of their job. And whether or not a deeper analysis of race ever enters into it is a matter of who's on the committee -- and who isn't. For example, did the question ever come up: is it valid for black and white Americans to stand in for Trojans and Greeks, i.e. representative of the perennial conflicts that have always existed between two different groups of people? It may have, and there may have been people who argued that it would be something American kids would immediately grasp, much more than they'd understand Trojans and Greeks or any other historical groups or even made-up groups in a full-out fantasy. And I have heard about teachers using Maniac Magee quite successfully in classrooms to spark a deeper discussion of race.

But ultimately I think the fatal flaw of the book rests in Spinelli's choice to use race as the dividing factor between the two groups when he himself seems to have a rather superficial understanding of racial history and politics. As brilliant as it was in concept, I don't think it worked in execution, leaving it open to the sorts of valid criticisms you have outlined so well here.

Debbie Reese said...

Excellent, Allie.

I'm thinking about the many things you've pointed out.

The excerpt about Indians stands out for this reason: those remarks by the guy who readers are supposed to see as a bad guy (and therefore we're supposed to see his remarks as racist) sound a whole lot like the things trump and trumpists say, today.

Your analysis on this Newbery winner, positioned side-by-side with remarks trumpists make, today, throws the entire "well, that's what they thought back then" defense of books like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE into the bin.

Anonymous said...

@Sam - Yup. See this article from 2014:
In public schools, kids of color and First/Native nations passed the 50% mark in 2014. At that point, 82% of teachers were white. The discrepancy is probably even greater now.

@KT - Wow, I've never heard of the Greek hero analysis before--although it makes sense, especially given the Hector Street thing. Very interesting!! You also inspired me to go look up the reviews it got at the time. Horn Book Guide starred it, but everyone else was eh, like you said. Kirkus said "If this is sometimes a bit like a chalkboard lesson, it may be because racism is still a volatile subject that is more comfortably dealt with in parable form" and SLJ said "It's a cop-out for Spinelli to have framed this story as a legend--it frees him from having to make it real".

@Debbie - Yes, totally, re: language and Trump supporters. The other thing that really bothers me about this is that yes, putting these words in McNab's mouth is supposed to indicate that he's the Racist Bad Guy, but even that action is a very casual use of Native stereotypes--the stereotype becomes a tool used to characterize a White character. I see Native tropes and stereotypes pulled out all the time to serve the purpose of villainizing or complicating white characters. I remember this being a thing in the Jeff Bridges version of True Grit. He was supposed to be a complex, flawed character but once you stripped away all the less-important, unpolished, surface flaws, he was ultimately a good guy. But, one of the flaws given to him to make him complex was that he was cruel to Native people. I picture the writers sitting around saying "we can't make him too likeable, that would be boring. Let's just sprinkle a little anti-Native bigotry on his character."

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. I was particularly struck by how early kids are taught that racist have a specific set of characteristics. It makes racist thoughts and remarks from otherwise friendly people difficult for kids to process and especially painful.

Sydney said...

Great post, Allie. In my experience, Spinelli has a way of sucking you into sympathizing with his characters as individuals to the point that you almost (almost) forget his blithe oversimplification of complicated social issues. As lovely as Milkweed is and as much as I also loved Maniac Magee as a kid and given the worthy moral of Stargirl, I'm just not sure how valuable the "childish innocence can solve every problem" take on life is.

Pat said...

Really on point, excellent analysis Allie. Thank you! I wrote a similar critique in 1994 (Language Arts) and later for a chapter in Theresa Rogers and Anna Soter's book on multicultural literature (see My point of reference was Toni Morrison's analysis of an Africanist presence in relation to an innocent white protagonist, akin to Huck Finn. I teach this book to point out the plot structure and use of a black/white binary---and to show painful it is for children who read the story as an assault on their lives. In fact, I read this with kids just as the the LAPD were acquitted of violating Rodney King's civil rights. Black children in the class were outraged by the ending, in which Mars Bar appears to be afraid in order to serve MM's heroics. They did not say this, per se, but the storyline so clearly points to the device of valorizing whiteness through an Africanist presence, that it is impossible to ignore. I'm inspired to go back and reread and rewrite an update. Thank you!

K. Flewelling said...

I had a similar experience re-reading this book last night. Like you, this was ALL TIME FAV when I read it as a kid, and now, I was like, well. This is missing a few things. I feel like the messages that it asks you to internalize are the most problematic of all. Thanks for saying everything I was feeling.

Abby Machson-Carter said...

You should Google for up to date numbers but Around 85% and over 50%... Increasing the younger you go (or the further into the future you look)

Adil Yellow said...

This past week I substitute taught a 4/5 class, where the young Mexican woman teacher is reading aloud Maniac Magee. The sole black boy sat in the back on one side, along with a dark skinned East Indian boy in the back on the other side. A dark skinned Mexican boy hid in a hoodie behind one of the white girls, who were positioned front and center, and who dominated the class.
I read the book to myself during breaks; I didn't end up reading it aloud at all. I mistakenly thought at first the Beales were white. Later I went to the library and caught up on parts I'd skipped over. I see the white savior myth very strongly presented. Even the "stray" white boy the black family takes in remarkably solves all the family's problems. I don't buy it for a minute that the black girl Amanda wants to give up her room. Why the black family gave up their child's room to accommodate the white boy is another nod to white supremacy. Yet, the compassion of the blacks surpasses that of the whites, that can be concluded from this story. Still, having the black girl make a sacrifice, and at the end of the book, when she hears "Shut up girl", denigrates black women.
I see also the black boy Mars portrayed as dangerous and a threat, just because he's black. He must display a kind of bravado image to live up the white hype. Yet his actual courage trumps the white boy's when a real child is in peril on a bridge. Yet in the end, Maniac does not go to live with him, despite Mars' mother's invitation. He goes with the black girl Amanda who also courageously takes a risk to fid Maniac in his hiding place. The actual courage of blacks once again outpaces whites, in human terms. For Maniac always runs. This could be another theme. Yet the author has Maniac the white boy beat Mars, the black boy, in a race.
When Maniac says to Mars on p. 145 "I'm so bad I must be black" that reinforces the deeply entrenched societal racist belief that black is bad.
When the boys play Rebel, that is a Civil War based game. The whites are "in" and the blacks are "out." Only the whites have the guns. No child wants to play the role of a black. This racist game is a complete denial of the courageous blacks who fought alongside whites in the Civil War, whenever they got a chance. Not to mention the many blacks who built fortifications and did other necessary but undesirable chores during that war, aching and fighting for their freedom.
Then there is Cobra, the red-haired protagonist, calling Mars "sonny." Mars the black boy is not permitted to defend himself. Maniac the white boy holds him back (figuratively and in actuality), while negotiating with the other white boy, "you owe me." It's the whites who hold the power. Only they have the power to "save" blacks. What has changed in the 30+ years since this book was written?
What a tragic message to impart on such young impressionable minds. Better to relegate this book to high school students, whose minds can better examine the embedded racism on display here.