The Tragic Fall of Mike Hanlon: One of American Fiction’s Only Black Male Librarians is Re-Imagined… As a Drug Addict

(Author’s note: I typically do not read fiction, and I have not read the novel “IT” by Stephen King. Therefore, any descriptions of the novel itself are derived from online summaries of the novel and admittedly may miss key details. I have watched the 1990 made-for-television miniseries of “IT”, as well as the 2017 film “IT”, which is the first of a two-part film adaptation of the novel.)

When I was hired to my first professional librarian job in 2008 at the age of 25, I was told at the time that I was quite possibly one of the ten youngest practicing Black male librarians in the United States who had an ALA-accredited masters degree in library science. Then again, at the time there were believed to only be about 600 practicing Black male librarians total in the country; Black men therefore made up about 0.5 percent of the professional American librarian workforce[1].

My hope is that when the next round of “Diversity Counts” figures are released by the American Library Association, those figures will reveal that the number of Black male librarians in this country will have increased significantly since last decade. But in the meantime, I have tried to do my part by recruiting Black men into this field through formal and informal methods, including speaking to Black male students who are preparing to graduate from college about careers in librarianship, and introducing my Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brothers — young and old — to potential careers in my field.

“Though I’d never wish to be overly-reliant on fictional depictions of librarianship to sell Black men on the idea of becoming librarians, I do believe that seeing images — real life or fictional — of relatable Black men working as librarians may deconstruct some barriers that prevent Black men from viewing librarianship as a viable and respectable career choice.”

Though I’d never wish to be overly-reliant on fictional depictions of librarianship to sell Black men on the idea of becoming librarians, I do believe that seeing images — real life or fictional — of relatable Black men working as librarians may deconstruct some barriers that prevent Black men from viewing librarianship as a viable and respectable career choice. However, because Black male librarians are so hard to find in real life, fictional depictions of cool Black male librarians doing positive things would be very welcome by myself and likely by others in my field.

That’s why I was so excited about part two of the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “IT” hitting theaters in 2019. Fans of the novel and/or the 1990 made-for-television miniseries know that Mike Hanlon, one of Derry, Maine’s few Black residents and the only Black member of “The Losers’ Club” (the group of children who serve as protagonists in the story), grows up to become the town librarian and uses his knowledge and skills as a librarian to contribute to the battle between The Losers’ Club as adults and “IT/Pennywise”, the shapeshifting, malevolent entity that terrorizes and feeds upon the people of Derry roughly every 27 years. Mike happens to be the only fictional Black male librarian I am aware of, and I was very excited to see some new Black male librarian badass supply information and knowledge to the Losers as they battled IT/Pennywise the same way highly-decorated actor Tim Reid did when he starred as Mike in the made-for-television miniseries 28 years ago. With the first chapter of the film making over $700 million at the box office and becoming a smash hit in 2017, I was nearly salivating at the idea of audiences seeing a Black male librarian doing big things in a big movie next year.

Tim Reid as librarian Mike Hanlon in the 1990 made-for-TV adaptation of “It”, which aired on ABC.

My excitement has officially been quelled, however, as I guess the developers of the new adaptations of “IT” thought the progressive idea of the Black character being educated and using knowledge and information as power wasn’t cliché enough. So, they’ve resorted to a common trope for fictional Black characters and reimagined Mike — the story’s most prominent Black character — in the film adaptation… as a drug addict.

Andy Muschietti, director of the new film adaptations of King’s work, revealed to Entertainment Weekly that in the 2019 continuation of the story, Mike will be “a librarian junkie.” Mike will apparently still grow up to be a librarian just as he does in the novel and the 1990 miniseries, but while the rest of The Losers’ Club will still become successful as adults, Mike will struggle with drug addiction. I presume this will mean he will not come across as being as successful as his white counterparts in The Losers’ Club, and it also likely means his addiction will play a large role in how the story unfolds, while his occupation as town librarian will play a smaller role in the story’s unfolding.

Kudos, Mr. Muschietti. Kudos. In the miniseries at least, there was nothing to not like about Mike. He was an all-around positive character. He was successful, intelligent, and lived a clean life. He was the one who brought The Losers’ Club back together to hold them to their promise to defeat the fear and flesh-gobbling monster. And he was something exceptionally rare in American fiction: a Black male librarian.

And now Mike will be a fictional Black male junkie. Did we really need any more of those? Has this not been done to death already?

As I mentioned in my author’s note above, I have not read the novel, so what I am sharing in this paragraph is based on summaries of the novel and second-hand information from friends and acquaintances that have read the novel. But it is my understanding that Mike’s intellectual side was already downplayed in the 2017 film. Mike was apparently well-versed in the local history of Derry even as a child in the novel; in the 1990 miniseries, the child version of Mike does have a strong grasp on local Derry history and even delivers a presentation on the history of Derry in school one day. However, in the 2017 film, Mike’s character does not flash his intellectual side very much, and fellow Loser’s Club member Ben Hanscom becomes the resident local history expert for The Losers’ Club.

Also clearly downplayed in the 2017 film adaptation of “IT” is the racial element to the bullying that Mike endures at the hands of the deranged juvenile degenerate Henry Bowers and his friends. In the 1990 miniseries, Henry and his friends direct racial slurs toward Mike during an encounter with him, and it is explicitly conveyed that Henry’s hatred of Mike is racially motivated. In the 2017 film, audiences can likely infer that Henry’s hatred of Mike is racially-based, but it is not blatantly obvious.

Given that I am lamenting the loss of uniqueness in Mike’s character in this column, I could normally forgive the downplaying of the racial elements of the conflict between Mike and Henry. After all, depictions of racial conflict in American fiction certainly are not hard to find elsewhere. But what was striking in the 1990 miniseries was that Mike overcame the struggles and strife of being hated as one of the lone Black residents of a nearly all-white New England town and that his strength and resolve — versus geekiness, nerdiness or social awkwardness — paved his path toward becoming the town librarian. It seemed like the novel and 1990 miniseries versions of Mike Hanlon defied every trope typically tacked on to librarians in fiction.

And now, Mike will simply join the legions of fictional Black characters who abuse drugs and show an inability to cope with the realities they face in life.

Please allow me to clarify that I’m not calling for fiction writers to cease and desist with creating Black characters who struggle with drugs. Drug abuse among Black Americans — as well as Americans of all races — is unfortunately a real issue and I have no desire to pretend that this real issue does not exist and does not complicate the lives of many great families in our nation. I am also aware that Mike and the other Losers’ Club members do experiment with hallucinogens both in the novel and in the 2017 film, but let us not pretend that inhaling a drug as a youth is tantamount to being a “junkie”, which is how Muschietti describes adult Mike in the upcoming film. However, reimagining this positive Black male character as a junkie just seems wholly inappropriate and unnecessary. Just this once, I wanted to have my fictional Black male librarian hero on the big screen in a hit movie. Stephen King created a truly unique character when he created Mike. And now Mike is reduced to a stereotype.

“Stephen King created a truly unique character when he created Mike. And now Mike is reduced to a stereotype.”

The adult Mike Hanlon of the 2019 part-two of “IT” will not be a character that I can present to other Black males as the badass librarian whose handle on information and knowledge helps a community overcome its threats and challenges. All the same, my quest to bring more Black males into librarianship will continue. It just stings a bit that I’ve lost a key ally in this quest.

[1] “‘Endangered Species’: Black Male Librarian” by National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91955374