Even if you weren’t previously aware that there’s an eighth installment in the Harry Potter saga, chances are you probably know about it by now. The internet went supernova yesterday over news of the casting decisions for the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Childset 19 years after the events of the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The play will have quite a successful line-up of stars, with Jamie Parker playing Harry, Paul Thornley as Ron and Noma Dumezweni as Hermione.
It’s the last name on the list that has catalyzed such empathic responses. For years, fans associated the image of Hermione with Emma Watson. Now the character is played by a black woman. Unsurprisingly, social media was somewhat divided on the change. While a majority were overwhelmingly happy, others expressed confusion, despair and even horror at the revelation.
But why is a character’s ethnicity up for debate? In part, that’s because it’s never been officially specified. While both the cover artwork and the films have portrayed Hermione as white, the books themselves have never identified a clear racial identity. Instead, they make ambiguous statements about bushy hair, brown eyes, and the way a young girl looked “very brown” when she sat outside Florean Fortescue’s ice cream shop.
At the same time, there are descriptions of Hermione blushing or having a “red face,” traits commonly associated with lighter-skinned individuals. It doesn’t help that JK Rowling herself has famously remained silent on the subject. Even her most recent tweet offered no clarification, only enthusiastic support for the idea of a black Hermione:
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very smart. White skin is never specified. Rowling likes black Hermione https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH
— JK Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
That said, it’s not just a matter of semantics. The idea that Hermione could exist outside the status quo, that she could be tangibly “different” is an idea that many fans hold dear. If Harry Potter is analogous to our secret hope that we are greater than the circumstances of our birth and Ron Weasley’s promise that even a bumbling outcast can find happiness, then Hermione Granger is the marginalized figure who beats the system.
As a Muggle-born, one of human descent, she is constantly humiliated and ridiculed; her right to have been challenged and tested even at Hogwarts. It’s not hard to draw parallels between her situation and the trials minorities face in real life. And just as her struggles are an allegory, so are her successes. Hermione overcomes oppression by working harder, better and smarter than anyone else. She fights – and eventually wins – with knowledge and self-improvement. It symbolizes what young women from minority groups are taught: that you have to try harder than your peers, that you always start from a disadvantage, that it will always be an uphill battle.
Seeing Hermione do just that is powerful. Being able to imagine her as a person of color is powerful. That’s not to say that a canonically white Hermione is any less valuable as a role model, just that the possibility that she could be different is remarkably powerful.
And now it exists. Officially.
I doubt Rowling ever intended for Hermione to be a person of color. The cynic in me insists this is an example of entrepreneurial wisdom. Writers instinctively draw from the familiar and populate their worlds with fantastic representations of real life. Rowling lived in Edinburgh while she developed the Harry Potter universe, so it’s not exactly hard to imagine her creating Hermione in the image of what she saw most: a predominantly white population. Which is totally okay.
The point is that Rowling, who co-wrote the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child story with playwright Jack Thorne, allowed a black Hermione to co-exist with Emma Watson’s portrayal. Intentionally or not, it conveys a message, however quietly, that no demographic is inherently more valuable than the other.
A London play is unlikely to have the cultural impact of the books or the films, but it will be interesting to see the causality of Dumezweni’s casting.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is scheduled to debut in July 2016 and will be a two-part due to the “epic nature of the story”. Tickets are now available through the official website; a first-class ticket for both parts of the play costs £130, but cheaper tickets are available.