Maniac Magee and Cultural Diversity
The book Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli is a book about racism and homelessness. In an article written by David L. Russell he quotes to different viewpoints on the right of an author to write culturally diverse literature. The first of the two, August Wilson, an African-American playwright, says that "Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains outside, no matter how astute a student or well-meaning the intentions" (quoted in Harris 42). The second, another African American, Henry Louise Gates Jr., says "No human culture is so inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world" (Gates 30). Wilson is saying that in order for an author to write about a said culture then that said author should be from that culture. Someone who is Native American cannot write about African American culture and so on. Gates is saying that people can adapt and have the empathy required to learn about and respect other cultures. He also says that in order for one to write about a culture they have to know that culture well. Gates also give a list of guide lines to evaluate a literary work to discover its cultural consciousness. I agree with Gates, I like to believe that the world has a soft spot or a curiosity for other cultures. This said quote could also be interpreted in different ways. Culture can mean many different things; many people believe that culture is based on ethnicity, whether they are African American or Asian or Anglo Saxon. However according to anthropologists’ culture is not based on your ethnicity but who you are and how you live. For the purpose of this argument however we will assume that culture is based on your ethnicity.
The first of these guidelines is evaluating the characters in the book, looking to see if they are portrayed as individuals with real feelings, thoughts and beliefs. In the story Maniac Magee, Maniac has very real feelings; they vary from anger, and panic to sorrow and empathy for the people the town. He feels sorrow and empathy for the people who have taken him in and he feels fear when his parents die, when the old man dies. When his friends on both sides of the town, black and the whites, whom he saw as equals, talked trash about the other side he got angry and would defend them to no end. To help the mingling of whites and black Maniac tried so many things to help them see the world as he did; he even invited Mars Bars who is black to a birthday party of a friend who was white. This book passes guideline one.
The second guide line suggested is the author has avoided any cultural stereotyping that suggests all members of a specific cultural group share the same socioeconomic status, similar occupations, tastes etc. In the book, Spinelli told us about families Maniac came in contact with and the made sure there were plenty of details. The old man was not as well off nor did he have a high social status as the black family he was living with before him. The old man was living at the YMCA; he did not own his own house or any of the finer things in life. After he has furnished the shed for Maniac he mentioned it was better than his place at the YMCA. The white family he stayed with after the old man died was clearly not better off than the black family he was living with first. The white family he would sometimes sneak in to have dinner with was clearly better off than any family he had stayed with. The author does not generalize and stereotype that whites are better than blacks or vice versa.
Thirdly we look to see if the culture is accurately portrayed without exaggeration or romanticizing it. I think this guide line is a bit sketchy, not everyone knows how a culture is, so how does one know if it is accurately portrayed? Some cultures you may hear of doing things that you may think is out of this world… you wonder if it’s true or just and exaggeration. Without research you really wouldn’t know if it was. Also different parts or sections of that culture, clan, group or tribe could take it to the extreme. There for this guide line I am throwing it out.
The fourth guide line is a bit more of a matter of opinion as well; any problems facing the group are dealt with seriously, faithfully, and honestly, and without oversimplification. In the book, Maniac and other characters are faced with many problems. There is a time when they first family Maniac stays with starts to be bullied and terrorized for taking in the “white” kid. Him and his “family” try to help the others to see that color is not an issue but eventually Maniac gives up and runs away to make sure his “family” stay safe. Running away isn’t always the best choice, later on in the story he goes back to confront this problem. Running away was a simple answer to the problem but the problem its self was not simplified it was shown as a serious problem; he felt that staying would put the family in harm’s way. This book passes this guide line as well.
Last but not least, all factual details are accurate, and there are no omissions or distortions that may cast an unfair light on the picture. Again, how do you know unless you are of that culture? I would look at the story and look for gaps or things that do not add up. The story about Maniac is fair and he plays on both sides of the road and does not show favoritisms for one or the other, neither does the author. In the descriptions of the cultures he is fair and does not over emphasize on one or the other. This book passes this guide line as well.
Based on the guide lines mentioned above I would have to say that this book follows Gates’s theory and if we keep teaching books like this to the younger generation they may grow up looking at the world differently. Using these guide lines we can choose the books that help support Gates’s theory and pass on the positive message to the younger generation. As for Willon’s theory, as you can see you don’t have to be from that culture to write about that culture accurately. His theory does not prove factual.