Mike Hanlon, Dick Hallorann, and Stephen King's Magical Negroes

Mike Hanlon, Dick Hallorann, and Stephen King's Magical Negroes

Let’s be honest here, Stephen King has a black people problem (at least with the books written in his first two decades). On the one hand he should be applauded for the relatively large inclusion of black characters in his books. He is after-all a white male writer who’s lived his entire life in an extremely white area of the country. When most of his white writer contemporaries were completely ignoring the black experience, King made several valiant attempts to include color in his novels. Black characters play major roles in The Shining, The Stand, The Talisman, and It, which, though still infrequent, far surpass many of his white contemporaries.

The problem arises from his unfortunate propagation of the “Magical Negro” trope in nearly all cases except Mike Hanlon from It. For those unaware of the Magical Negro, here’s a tremendous primer from Nnedi Okorafor in Strange Horizons:

"Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.

  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.

  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.

  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.

  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers."

King makes the effort to include black characters, but seems unable to see them as fully human, giving them ancillary storylines that serve to primarily help the white characters in the storyline. This is undeniably the case with John Coffey, Mother Abigail, and Speedy Parker, who are all great, instantly memorable and empathetic characters, but are not given much to do beyond help the white characters complete their storylines. On their own, they are not necessarily problematic; writers include these types of tropes in their writing all the time. The issue is the trend. When one black character is a magical Negro, one can be forgiven. When they all are, we have a problem.

The two that don’t fit neatly, though, are Dick Hallorann in The Shining and Mike Hanlon from It, but they both still have their own problems. I’m inclined to forgive Dick’s immediate liking of Danny Torrance given that they both have the Shine and Danny has the strongest Dick’s ever seen. King makes it clear that Dick feels inclined to help others with the Shining, and so it follows that his character would feel obligated to Danny, a child who is clearly heading into grave danger. Far from being unnaturally kind or spiritual, I see Dick’s willingness to head back to the Overlook as basic human decency. I can’t imagine living with the idea that I let a child die when I had the foreknowledge and could have stopped it.

The bigger issue with Dick is that, while his interior life is fairly well-represented, all the accoutrements of his character are stereotypical as hell. He’s a single black man, who drives a Cadillac, sleeps around, and has children out of wedlock. These types of details are necessary to include in any character that will play this pivotal a role in the narrative, but the particular arrangement of these traits adds up to a caricature of a black man. It’s clearly easier to have Dick be single for the narrative, but why not have his wife of 30 years have passed away before the novel starts? Why not have him visit Florida every winter because that’s where his son lives? These types of changes wouldn’t affect the narrative at all, but they certainly change the motivations for the character and give him personal stakes in the outcome, instead of simply making him a convenient plot device for the white characters.

Mike Hanlon is probably the most well-rounded black character in the first two decades of King’s career. He has autonomy, he sleeps with a white character (albeit as an 11-year-old, which, ick), he’s given a significant backstory that doesn’t just revolve around his being black, and he is arguably the main protagonist in It. These are all fairly huge steps forward for King as a writer, and also for white horror writers in general. But, damn, Steve! Why is Mike sidelined to the degree that he is? Not only does he not enter the main thrust of the 1958 narrative until it’s half over, but as an adult he gets left behind in Derry, and then gets injured so that he doesn’t participate in the adult sewer sequences. In the end, he basically plays the magical Negro anyway, since his only narrative function is to be the secretary for the white characters’ storylines and then get out of the way while they take care of everything. In some respects, this is a fairly pointed criticism of It in general. After-all they are all labeled “losers” because of something that makes them untouchable in society, yet for three of them (Bev, Mike, and Stan) their sin is rooted in a societal issue rather than a medical one. And in all cases they are sidelined. Stan dies before the narrative even starts, Mike is stabbed and misses out on the second confrontation, and Bev is a love interest for the two strongest male leads. On the one hand, being black, Jewish, or a strong girl in 1950’s Maine definitely put one on the outs of white society, but it’s also hard not to notice that King continues this persecution into the adult narrative, punishing these characters because they’re not white men. If you’re not convinced, how many times is adult Eddie punished for his asthma, Bill for his stutter, Richie for his ADHD? These characters grow up and out of their afflictions, but Mike, Stan, and Bev continue to be punished even as adults.

With Mike this is simply unacceptably lazy writing. There’s really no reason he needs to be left out of the final confrontation, other than for some reason King felt the need to make him separate from the other losers, both in his remembering and in the final thrust of the narrative. But King could have just as easily made him capable of continuing through his wounds. After-all, Eddie does. In the end, Mike’s story arc is disappointing since he gets so much backstory and we care so deeply for him, but he gets no catharsis, no satisfaction for keeping the flame for the rest of the group. Other than Bill, no character suffered at the hands of Pennywise more than Mike, and he deserved a chance to get the fucker back.

Similar to my criticize of King for his latent misogyny in his early work, he can be somewhat forgiven for his authorial sins against his black characters. At least he HAS black characters. His attempts may be flawed, but they were attempts no less, and they show a writer attempting to wrestle with his cultural blind spots, in the process laying his own biases bare for all to read. There’s a certain courage in that, and while the final product may be lacking, he should be applauded for the effort.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

The Shining

The Shining

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