Seeing A Black Hermione In 2018 Is A Reminder Of What Fandom Can Build


Posted on: 28th April 2018

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A few days before Christmas 2015 I was lolling around my brother’s guest bedroom, absentmindedly scrolling through my Twitter mentions, when my entire decade was made. A person I didn’t know, with the handle @jewseal, had tweeted at me in all-caps urgency, asking if I’d seen the casting of the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I hadn’t. So I googled it. And then I immediately burst into wracking sobs.

What I saw was pretty straightforward, really: It was Noma Dumezweni, sandwiched between Jamie Parker and Paul Thornley. The three of them were set to play the trio of friends who had been at the center of the Harry Potter series. Parker would be Harry; Thornley would be Ron Weasley. Dumezweni, a celebrated theater actor, would be playing Hermione Granger. It was a simple sight that was sprawling in its implications. After all, Dumezweni is black, and it was that fact that seized my heart up and made me lose control of my tear ducts in the middle of what had been a perfectly calm afternoon. In one casting move, they’d officially changed Hermione forever. It’s a moment that has become deeply etched into me, a tattoo on the arc of my life.

Noma Dumezweni with Jamie Parker (left) and Paul Thornley backstage following the press preview of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre in London, 2016.

David M. Benett / Getty Images

That Hermione had already been brought to life as a woman of color via pen, paint, and pixels only contributed to the surreality of that day. The ranks of fans imagining her this way had been growing for years. All over my Tumblr timeline were versions of Hermione with brown skin, her race most often black. It was happening with Harry Potter himself, too — he was being visualized with increasing frequency as black or South Asian. These interpretations of the characters cropped up in fan fiction, Tumblr text posts, GIF sets, and most arrestingly, in art.

Fan artists like Batcii, Sadyna, Natello, Dellbelle39, and so many more built dreams of what these characters could be into their own reality. It was an ecosystem constructed and nurtured by fandom itself. J.K. Rowling tweeted after Dumezweni’s casting that “white skin was never specified” in her original writing of Hermione — but that didn’t change that eight blockbuster films and piles of official material from the books’ publishers still actively led millions of people to believe that Hermione was solidly white. Because of that, Harry Potter fans were used to manifesting their own representations from a series that had always presented very white and very straight.

I personally wrote about this phenomenon in February 2015, as part of an edit test for a staff writer position with the now-defunct BuzzFeed Geeky. The piece tumbled right out of me, a late-night fever dream and an exercise in putting words to something I’d been thinking about for years but had never really talked about out loud. I was 23, living in Portland, Oregon, and trying to make my way to New York, hopeful this piece that no one would likely read would land me a job that could get me there. Hopeful that, if it didn’t, at least it would help me get something off my chest.

But much as I’d pined for her existence, I’d never actually thought I’d see a black Hermione in my lifetime.

Rereading it now, it’s clear that I was in the middle of unlearning some of the lessons of whiteness I’d grown up surrounded by. “I'd dress up in Hogwarts uniforms for Halloween but avoid going overtly as Hermione because I knew I could never get my hair like Emma Watson's,” I wrote then. “My hair was a whole different kind of frizzy. I loved [Hermione] so much, but it took me a long time to accept that I could never be her.”

Tumblr, though, was a powerful thing. Fans there were on the same journey as me, challenging the default of whiteness we had been taught to accept without question. On my Tumblr dashboard, Hermione already looked like me. Drawing her as a woman of color was an act of resistance — of, as I put it back then, “reclaiming her allegory at its roots.” Many of the fan artists who made her that way never thought their missives into the spirited void of internet fandom would ever touch canon. I personally was thrilled enough when, in the days after my piece started picking up steam online, J.K. Rowling liked a series of tweets that inquired about the possibility of a black Hermione.

But much as I’d pined for her existence, I’d never actually thought I’d see a black Hermione in my lifetime. I’d resigned myself to the canon being immovable — to it not particularly caring if there were space for people who looked like me. Fandom, after all, is its own worthy world. And fandom had already created a black Hermione, and I had already called her my own.

That was 11 months before Dumezweni’s role in Cursed Child was announced. Seeing Noma in that cast picture flipped some kind of switch in me. She was real. Tangible. Undeniable. As the author tweeted shortly after the announcement, “Rowling loves black Hermione .” It felt like validation, like a positive feedback loop, like someone in power was actually listening for once. It was a complicated feeling. It came with the knowledge that a move like this is both a massive, impactful gesture and one that only goes so far. In that moment, looking at that picture, it felt like everything. It was a major step forward. But how far would it reach? How much could it heal of the pain of not being seen — not just in Harry Potter but in so much mainstream media and art?

When I find myself contemplating the ins and outs of fandom I often think back to something the media scholar Henry Jenkins told the New York Times in 1997. “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations,” he said, “instead of owned by the folk.”

The relationship between fandom and the object of its initial devotion — a book series, a film, a television show, a celebrity, or the amalgamation of all of the above — has always added up to more than the sum of its parts. Fans carry a reputation as obsessive peons, but fandom is actually a place of rampant creation. Latching on to some piece of inspiration, people enmeshed in fandom write novel-length stories, create stunning works of visual art, and write enough music to classify whole new genres. On a smaller scale, they spit out drabbles, text posts, GIF sets, headcanons, and so many more tidbits. They have the power to alternately amuse, disrupt, and genuinely alter the way you see that original text. Regardless of whether any official Star Trek installment ever actually gets Kirk and Spock together, the fan community that formed around their pairing has spanned over half a century. It carries its own cultural weight, its own worth, its own reality.

Ghost in the Shell 2, 2004, and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, 2017.

Dream Works / Everett Collection, Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

The vast majority of the time, fandom’s riffs and the “canon” of an official text are kept separate. Authors, showrunners, and actors routinely reject the notion that ideas nurtured in fan communities could ever come to fruition. Audiences reading Star Wars’ Finn and Poe as romantically interested in each other turned into mainstream news, but it’s often treated like a far-fetched idea that fans should never expect to actually happen. Still, the relationship between fandom and the media they consume has been growing more and more linked over the years. The CW show Supernatural is in a constant give-and-take with fans. It reached the point years ago where its fandom became an active meta character on the show, conventions and fanfic included. Yet the series still skirts one of the community’s biggest convictions: that several of the show’s central relationships read like the characters are romantically in love with each other. The series winks in acknowledgment of those conversations — but any thought that they’d actually give those characters queer storylines has historically been treated as ludicrous.

Fandom and media are in a symbiotic relationship, one side constantly helping or hurting the other — though not always in equal measure. When the live-action Ghost in the Shell caught heat for casting a white woman (Scarlett Johansson) in the lead role, those conversations started in fandom. When the movie bombed at the box office, the studio blamed that fan-led controversy for the failure.

On the flip side, though, there are instances of inter-dimensional payoff. On Season 4 of Jane the Virgin, for example, the writers gave the character Petra (Yael Grobglas) a queer awakening and a relationship with a woman named Jane (Rosario Dawson). It was a direct reference to years of the Jane the Virgin fandom reading Petra as a queer woman with a romantic connection with Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez). Elsewhere, the decision to cast a woman (Jodie Whittaker) as the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who was the result of a variety of environmental factors. But it also took place after years of fans actively pushing the show’s producers to consider a woman Doctor —and after years of former showrunner Steven Moffat evading the topic, sometimes with warped reasoning.

Jodie Whittaker signs autographs following the announcement that she'll be the 13th doctor on Doctor Who.

Victoria Jones / PA Images / Getty Images

But cases of payoff are still rare, which means that a black Hermione stands out, even two and a half years later. That she exists at all still feels like an anomaly — a symbol of what the relationship between fandom and “canon” can be at its very best. Fan communities thought her up, then an official Harry Potter production brought her to life, introducing the idea of her to the audience of millions of people who pay attention to big Harry Potter news. It was a major milestone in the battle for more representation in mainstream entertainment.

It’s hard to find a more overexposed property than Harry Potter. It packs a punch, then, to expand the identity of one of its most iconic characters. Assuming the Potter franchise continues into eternity — and, by all accounts, that’s the plan — future generations won’t be able to deny that there is plenty of room to cast Hermione as a woman of color. Maybe they’ll even do it for other characters. Maybe one day a man of color will be cast as Harry. Maybe one day kids will grow up assuming that’s the way these characters have always been.

There are a lot of maybes out there. But those feel better than the belief that nothing would ever happen. A black woman as Hermione remains a symbol of pure possibility. If Hermione can be black not only in our hearts but in an official production, what other borders can we expand? What else can we, collectively, make room for?

Dumezweni, Jamie Parker (left) and Paul Thornley attend a press reception at the Lyric Theatre in New York City, 2018.

Walter Mcbride / Getty Images

A lot has happened in the world of Harry Potter fandom since 2015. The first Fantastic Beasts film came out, bringing with it lots of discussion of diversity in the Harry Potter franchise. Though the sequel, Crimes of Grindelwald, includes more people of color — including Jessica Williams, Zoë Kravitz, and Claudia Kim — the first movie was starkly white. It also came with more writing from Rowling on North American wizarding history. When Pottermore published Rowling’s piece on Native American wizards, readers accused her of cultural appropriation. “You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee activist and writer, said on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

In other words, representation in Harry Potter remains hit or miss. One giant leap doesn’t wipe out all the rest. And there are other controversies taking center stage in Harry Potter fandom in 2018 — like Warner Bros.’ and Rowling’s decision to stand by their casting of Johnny Depp after his ex-wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse. (Heard and Depp released a statement in August 2016 saying that “neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm.”) There’s also a question over whether Albus Dumbledore’s gayness will be made evident in the upcoming Crimes of Grindelwald. The film’s director, David Yates, told Entertainment Weekly that Dumbledore’s sexuality wouldn’t be “explicitly” referenced in the movie. When fans were upset, Rowling responded that the public has yet to see the film, and with a reminder that there will be three more Fantastic Beasts movies after Grindelwald.

In the midst of all that, conversations around Hermione can feel like they’re in the rearview mirror. But watching Cursed Child on Broadway was a reminder of what it could feel like when the conversation between fandom and author is at its most fruitful, and of how good it can feel when we succeed in pushing each other forward.

I tried desperately to get to London to see Cursed Child the first time around, but the money didn’t come together. Then the production came to Broadway. Tickets were acquired. And as the day approached, it felt more and more like a nonreligious pilgrimage.

Dumezweni with her 2017 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London.

Eamonn M. McCormack / Getty Images

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