Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Black Hermione

If you, like me, are a Harry Potter fan, you've probably heard that black actor* Noma Dumezwemi was cast to play Hermione in the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. You've probably also heard that people have Opinions about it.

*My policy is to avoid using gendered terms where possible. If you think it's sketchy that the male-coded term is also the neutral/default, we can talk about that too.

JKR herself is in favor:

...and I am inclined to be, as well. But I ran into an objection put forth by the indomitable Nnedi Okorafor, writer of books such as Who Fears Death, Kabu-Kabu, and Lagoon (which is very high on my to-read list), and since her thoughts about race and representation are consistently mind-opening, I want to think about them as well.

Here are a series of her tweets criticizing JKR's response:

Here, also, is a Huffington Post article about the phenomenon of race-bending HP characters, including very good fanart.

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As the HuffPo article points out, white is taken as default and reinterpreting characters as POC is a way of challenging that assumption. Fans of any race put forth versions contrary to the canon whiteness, and that's powerful. I am not alone in being a minority kid who really enjoyed HP and seeing these already-beloved characters as POC increases the resonance that they have. Representation matters--it says, you exist and your story is worth telling.

One of Okorafor's points, though, is that the story of Harry Potter did not involve a black Hermione, and that writers are doing something wrong by embracing the retroactive "brownwashing" of their initially white casts. I have no doubt that JKR's initial Hermione was intended to be white.

I vaguely recall seeing one of the black Hermione fanarts linked in the HuffPo article somewhere (probably deviantArt or Tumblr) and reading a comment that criticized the racebending phenomenon on the grounds that this was "brownwashing" and not real representation, because Hermione is never depicted as having race be an issue in the canon.

For the Potter books, I don't see this as a strong criticism, because Dean Thomas, the Patil twins, Cho Chang, etc. also don't seem to run into any trouble relating to race. At a higher level, however, this is a stronger criticism against JKR's way of dealing with race, i.e. making it a nonissue/creating an unrealistically colorblind wizarding world.

The "diversity points" that JKR has gained by saying that Dumbledore is gay and that she loves black Hermione are worth less than they would be if these characters' marginalized identities were explicitly referenced in the books. Okorafor's point that the series owes its popularity to JKR not having written and stuck by minority characters from the beginning rings fairly true.

So it is a bone, and only a bone--but what harm is being done? Themes of discrimination run everywhere in HP and seeing Hermione, or Harry, or any number of other characters as minorities ties in well with the theme.

I don't know how much weight to put into the suggestion that JKR is being disingenuous in saying that she loves black Hermione. Maybe because if she really loved black Hermione then she would have written black Hermione more clearly? I don't think, though, that JKR is claiming that Hermione was black all along, just that, given what is in the books, interpreting Hermione as black is valid.

A quick aside on authorial authority (i.e. the authority of the author). I'm dubious of its power, because once a work is out there, readers will interact with it differently, interpret it differently from how the author imagined. The boundaries of canon are also murky--is "canon" just the books, the books + the movies, the books + JKR's subsequent interviews and statements? I tend to think that only the published books are canon, and even then flexible (we see everything filtered through Harry's perspective; who knows what else might have been going on in the background?).

For me, then, JKR's approval is not necessary for black Hermione's existence. Seeing Hermione as a POC clearly resonates with a lot of people, including me, and fans don't need permission or approval from the author in order to interpret their characters in ways that diverge from canon.

However, a lot of people probably do put more weight into JKR's support of black Hermione than any other person's. So what are we to make of that?

Another prominent theme in the series is remorse, repentance, making up for past mistakes. JKR probably had a white Hermione in mind when she wrote the books. It would have been awesome if she hadn't, but that's not how it turned out. Having written and become famous/wealthy because of a series whose three principal characters are white, and seeing fan interpretations of those characters as minorities, what is the best thing that JKR could do?

A) "Stand by her white world" and say no, Harry is white, Hermione is white, go home? Or B) say yeah, I hadn't thought of them that way but it definitely could be a thing, go forth and prosper?

Absolutely, Okorafor is right that neither option is ideal. But C) say "what do you mean, Hermione has always been black, look at how she's explicitly said to be so in the books and movies" is not an option because that wasn't how the books were written

I hope to see more books coming out with explicitly minority characters. Writers standing by their nonwhite worlds > writers not standing by their white worlds. Retroactive representation < upfront representation. But still--I'm glad JKR chose option B.

Long live black Hermione!

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