In Which I Talk About Black Hermione

There’s a play in the works about Harry Potter & Co. as adults, and we’ve recently seen the casting for the main roles:

Jamie Parker, Noma Dumezweni and Paul Thornley will lead the cast as Harry, Hermione and Ron when Cursed Child opens in London’s west end next summer.

J.K. Rowling told Pottermore: ‘I’m so excited with the choice of casting for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I can’t wait to see Jamie, Noma and Paul bring the adult Harry, Hermione and Ron to life on stage next summer.’

No one seems to have anything to say about Jamie Parker or Paul Thornley (actually there’s a little bit of chatter regarding Thornley as Ron Weasley, but I won’t deal with that here), but there’s been a predictably high volume of opinion-sharing about Noma Dumezweni playing Hermione.

I say “predictably high volume” because Ms. Dumezweni is a black lady from Swaziland, and there are a lot of people who think Hermione Granger should not be cast with a black actress. JKR disagrees. JKR seems to think it’s totally fine for Ms. Dumezweni to play Hermione.

The collage of fan art she shares in the Tweet reminds us that it’s totally possible to picture Hermione as a black girl without contradicting her descriptions in the text.

The discussion of Hermione shown on stage as a black woman is important because there are lots of fans, especially of the nerdy black girl variety, who’ve pictured Hermione as a girl of color for many years, so casting Noma in the role is a triumph. It’s controversial because there are also lots of fans, especially of the privilege-denying nerdy white folk variety, who are convinced that Hermione’s been a white girl all this time and any other portrayal is wrong. In the replies to the Tweet I embedded above, for example, are lots of people talking about an instance in the books that referred to Hermione’s face as “white,” and so they’re insisting that she should be portrayed on stage by a white actress.

In case anyone’s wondering what my position is in this discussion: I think it’s totally fine for Noma to play Hermione. I don’t really think I have a useful opinion on this, but it’s my blog and if you’re reading this post you might wonder how I feel on this topic. I think the casting is totally fine. I would also like to point out that JKR, as the writer who created Hermione Granger, agrees with the casting, and that being the case, there really shouldn’t be any controversy. If JKR says Hermione could’ve just as easily been a black girl all this time, then get used to it.

However.

I am also sympathetic to the peeps I see on Twitter, noting that what JKR is doing here is basically deciding to make her books more diverse after the fact. The first instance of doing so was when she told us Dumbledore was gay. I will note that there were plenty of fans who picked up on the Dumbledore-in-love-with-Grindelwald dynamic from reading Deathly Hallows! But at the same time, JKR could’ve said it in so many words in the book itself, rather than making us wait for her to tell us off-page later on. And there’s a similar dynamic with Hermione here. She’s deciding to build more diverse representation into a book series long after it’s been written, published and read by untold millions. And I’m not saying it’s wrong of her to do that! It’s just that the case can be made that Hermione as a person of color wasn’t exactly JKR’s idea.

Those in favor of Black Hermione point out—rightly—that the way Hermione is described in the text doesn’t say she’s white. Her physical descriptions leave plenty of room for interpretation of racial characteristics. And, yes, they do! She has bushy brown hair, brown eyes, big front teeth. The text never specifies a skin tone. Harry notes that she comes back from her summer holiday looking “very brown.” I always just assumed she’d gotten a nice tan in France? I just figured Hermione was a white girl with unruly brown hair and brown eyes, and she tans easily. Maybe a little Mediterranean ancestry? “Very brown” is within the bounds of how I’d describe the appearance of a white person with a deep tan. And by making that assumption, perhaps I was buying into the idea of Whiteness as Default Setting of Humanity. Which, okay, I do that sometimes. Maybe I shouldn’t have projected whiteness into the space that Hermione’s physical description left open.

At the same time? If I can buy into Default Whiteness, JKR can do that, too, and to be quite honest, I think she’s done a lot of that.

In writing the Harry Potter series, JKR didn’t put racial designations on most of her characters, but she did let us know which characters are black. Lee Jordan, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson, Blaise Zabini and Kingsley Shacklebolt are all designated as black, in so many words. With other POC characters, she relied on us to fill in the blanks based on names. Parvati and Padma Patil are not specified as South Asian, but their names make it obvious. Cho Chang is not described directly as East Asian, but we get that from her name. She has long, shiny black hair in the text, but there’s nothing about her face. Also, there have been some really vigorous criticisms of the way JKR portrayed Cho, but for the purposes of this post, the point is we saw the name Cho Chang and understood we were to picture an East Asian girl.

Meanwhile, her white characters are never designated as white. We get that from other descriptors and rely on Default Whiteness to fill in the blanks. The Weasleys all have flaming red hair, so it’s difficult to picture them as anything other than an unambiguously white family. Draco Malfoy is described as “pale.” Seamus Finnegan has “sandy” hair and an Irish name, so he gets counted as white. We never actually get in so many words that Harry is white. We get that Lily Potter had dark red hair and emerald green eyes, and Aunt Petunia is blonde with “large, pale eyes,” so, okay, Harry is white on his mother’s side. What about the Potter side? James Potter had messy black hair like his son, and we eventually get that James had hazel eyes. That doesn’t necessarily mean white. There are South Asians with hazel eyes. Although he also has the surname of Potter, so, okay, probably white on his father’s side, at least. But the text never really tells us that Harry is monoracial-white; we fill that into the space left between his descriptions. I think it’s fair to say that if JKR had pictured Hermione as a girl of color, at the time of writing the series, she would’ve written so directly.

Another big gap in racial specifics comes in the epilogue of Deathly Hallows, in which we get not the slightest physical description of Ron and Hermione’s children. They have a daughter, Rose, who’s about to start her first year at Hogwarts, and a son, Hugo, who’s younger, but we don’t get a clue of what they look like. We get that Harry’s son Albus looks just like him, that his daughter Lily has red hair like Ginny, and that Draco Malfoy’s son looks just like him, but no specifics on Ron and Hermione’s kids. So, they could’ve inherited any of a wide range of racial characteristics from Hermione.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think JKR gave us that ambiguity intentionally. I’ve read her later works, such as The Cuckoo’s Calling, and she seems to like talking about mixed-race appearances. It could be said that she sort of fetishizes people of multiracial heritage. If she had pictured the Granger-Weasley children as biracial, she would’ve shown us that. They wouldn’t be the only biracial grandchildren in the Weasley clan; George Weasley married Angelina Johnson and had two kids with her. She wouldn’t be opposed to having Hermione be a person of color, she wouldn’t be opposed to writing an interracial relationship, but it is strange that she would designate several named characters as black but not Hermione, and that she writes such florid descriptions of mixed-race people in her later works but stays so quiet on Hermione’s children with Ron. Honestly, I think that JKR wrote Hermione from the framework of Default Whiteness. And when she wrote of “Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree,” I don’t think the “white face” referred entirely to emotion. It wasn’t a racial descriptor, but it did presuppose a fairly light skin tone aside from her momentary shock.

At the same time? “Fairly light skin tone” doesn’t have to mean we’re looking at a white person. Aside from the Default Whiteness framework, there are also racial boundaries that differ by country. The American construct of whiteness might not be quite identical to the British construct. Overlaps greatly, yes, but not entirely interchangeable. I know the boundaries around blackness differ by country, and they’re a bit different in Great Britain from America, so it’s not exactly impossible that someone counted as “white” in Britain could be designated differently in America, or vice versa. We know that Hermione has a British surname, unruly-textured brown hair, brown eyes, and big front teeth. Appears “very brown” after a summer spent on the beach, but cold-weather skin tone is unspecified. Within those lines, there’s plenty of room for interpretation.

Of course, there’s also this:

And, you know, Hermione is awesome, and she’s also imperfect, in ways that have nothing to do with racial categories. Even if JKR was thinking of a light-skinned girl when she wrote Hermione in the books, she seems to think Black Hermione is just fine, and that should tell us all we need to know. Nerdy black girls also need role models, and why shouldn’t Hermione be among those role models? There’s nothing about what she did in the book series that becomes incoherent or unimpressive when she’s shown with a dark face. Everything we loved about Default White Hermione, and everything that annoyed us about her, applies just as well to Black Hermione. I still think that JKR doesn’t really deserve the credit for the idea of Black Hermione. The credit belongs to fans. Ultimately, though, JKR is on board, and the fandom of Harry Potter is not the exclusive territory of white nerds, so get on board or get left behind.

2 thoughts on “In Which I Talk About Black Hermione

  1. There seems to be this rush to determine Hermione’s race in the books, which is interesting I guess, but it also seems weird to me.

    This is for a stage production, and stage productions are usually fast and loose with race as well as gender. I’m fine with thinking Hermione is a white girl in the books, I’m fine with thinking she’s a black girl in the books. I’m also fine with seeing this production (should I ever be in England, it’s in England, right?) and it not being any kind of a contradiction. I recently saw a broadcast version of the stage production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor. A black actor played his father and his little brother. Obviously I noticed because I’m remembering it, but in no way was it immersion breaking. Stage performances just work that way.

    I do agree with you that credit for a black Hermione goes more to the fans than to JKR, nothing against her… and I really love the black Hermione artwork.

    Anyway, I doubt I’ll see any calls for Peter Pan to no longer be played by slim young women pretending to be ageless flying boys.

    • Hmmm, I didn’t mean to imply that a single black actor played Victor’s father and brother. It was two actors, respectively. Both black.

      Whereas Cumberbatch is so white… it makes me want to complain about Star Trek Into Darkness.

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