Column: The Harry Potter universe is a white man’s world. How one superfan is trying to change that
Oh, sure, you’ve got your “Huckleberry Finns” and your “Beloveds” and “Great Gatsbys” — outstanding novels, all. But Eliyannah Amirah Yisrael would like to persuade you that the great American read is in fact seven novels written by an Englishwoman: the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. She’ll be making her case for Potter next Tuesday on the season launch of the PBS series “The Great American Read,” which is the quest for — well, perhaps not the best, but Americans’ best-loved novel.
Yisrael has worked here on TV shows like “Empire” and “Westworld,” and is now on a Fox feature film. She came late to the books but is such a devotee that she crafted a web series about the Potter character she identifies with. “Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis” brings the young witch to Los Angeles to stay with nonmagical relatives. Yisrael casts Hermione as a black woman. This is not at all implausible; the book drops some hints, and when the Rowling play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” debuted on the London stage two years ago, Hermione was played by a black woman. For Yisrael, the Potter magic is not how other-worldly it all feels, but how familiar.
How does a girl from the south side of Chicago end up championing novels about wizards and witches in an imaginary castle in a place that seems to be Scotland?
How indeed?! I grew up just absolutely obsessed with books. I have been reading for as long as I can remember. It’s always been my favorite hobby. And I feel like people have really interesting hobbies and mine is so classic — reading books.
When I was in college, my little brother was in sixth grade, and one of his classmates had one of the Harry Potter books and we had just watched the first two movies at our house, and so wanted to read the books.
But my mom was kind of nervous because she’d been hearing some things about how maybe they weren't a good influence on kids, and they sort of encouraged the practice of witchcraft, and she had some concerns in that area.
But you’d already seen the first two movies at your house.
She hadn’t seen them. My mom was working two jobs and she was in college, she was getting her bachelor’s degree at that time. She was just really busy so she wasn’t able to sit down and watch the movies with us.
She was telling me about the situation and I volunteered because again I love to read anyway.
And to be quite honest with you, I didn't intend to finish the book. I figured I would read a couple of chapters, skip to the end, and tell her that it was OK, because I had seen the movies. So I knew that it was fine.
Oh, but then some magic happened.
And then some magic happened! He gave me the book in the morning. I went to my school. I sat down in the cafeteria at about 7 a.m. I had an 8 o’clock class. I was going to read a couple pages.
I sat in that cafeteria until 10 o'clock at night, when they closed. I just sat there and couldn't put it down. I missed all my classes. I didn’t eat. I was so engulfed.
Which book was this?
It was “The Prisoner of Azkaban.” That was the first Harry Potter book that I read. And then I finished the book the next morning around 7 a.m. I went to an all-night diner near my house and I finished the book, and then from then on I was just — I was in. From that point I was, I gotta get more of these. I watched the movies again because I was so into it.
And when books five, six and seven came out, my big brother would actually buy the books and bring them to the house. My whole family, all of us kids, we’d be taking the book from each other, because he only bought one copy but there were five kids. It became almost like all-out war.
What was it about these books? They were so different in every way from the world that any of us kids really knew, except in our imaginations.
I think what really got us isn’t how different they were, but how similar, how familiar everything was. It was this idea that literally was just around the corner; everything in the world felt so familiar, in the sense that we could see, we could identify with it so easily, because it was so close to the world that we already live in, and it was so special.
In what sense was it close?
In the sense of you’re starting a new school, and you’re afraid of everybody. In the sense of, you have family that you wish you were closer to, or you have family like the Weasleys [in the books] that you’re super close to.
You could be a Hermione, such as myself, and you just love books and you love the library. And maybe you aren't the best at talking to people, but your intentions are really good. And you have teachers that you don't like.
So much of it was built around the school and the idea of making friends. And it just so happens that this school and the friendships and all those things are also a part of this larger plot to save the world.
That’s the big, fantastic part. But I think in the heart of what everybody is really drawn to are these things that are part of the human condition.
And here’s her Hermione Granger, who’s a swot, the girl like you, like me, with the nose in the book. And she’s become to you the Elizabeth Bennet from “Pride and Prejudice.” She’s the Jo March of “Little Women.”
The funny thing is, prior to Hermione, I went from being Jo, because I read “Little Women” first, back when I was young, and then I read “Pride and Prejudice” when I was in high school. So then Elizabeth became my go-to.
And then I read Harry Potter and I was, Hermione Granger, like that’s who I am.
But then again there was also that exciting factor that she had magic and she was on these adventures. It was not only familiar but it was also so exciting. Elizabeth Bennet is amazing, and I love her so much, but she certainly wasn’t out flying on dragons. It was this familiarity mixed with the fantastic.
You’ve also done a web series about Hermione Granger called “Hermione Granger and the Quarter-Life Crisis,” in which you carry her character further. In your web series she’s black; she leaves England, comes to America, hangs out with her American relatives and her friends. What happens in your web series?
I think becoming an adult and really, really standing on your own two feet — that’s a challenge like nothing else.
It’s hard to feel confident that you’re doing the right things in making the right choices, and the consequences can feel so large. I was going through some similar questions and [trying to] find the right direction and really wondering if I had made the right choices.
I was thinking a lot about, who was Hermione before she got on that train to Hogwarts her very first year? And also, who was she before she became really close to Harry and Ron?
Because I imagine that the year before she went to Hogwarts, she probably wanted to go to Oxford and become this PhD in history or some big subject like that. She probably had all these really big ambitions, and then she realizes she has magic, she’s on her way to the magic school. But she probably still is that same person; she wants to explore this new world that she is in.
I just couldn’t see why, after some time, she of all people wouldn’t start to question and start to wonder how she could get back on her own path.
And that's what I set out to do with the web series, was to give Hermione Granger a chance to find her path, not to just stay on the path that she fell onto.
When J.K. Rowling wrote the first book and went to have it published, she had to use her initials J.K., because she was told boys aren’t going to read this if they think a woman wrote it. Is Harry Potter’s world just a man’s world, or is Hermione changing that?
I think yes. Harry Potter is a man’s world. There are some female characters in the book, obviously, including Hermione, of course, but it really is a story about Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort and Albus Dumbledore. So yes, it is a man's world.
And Hermione is absolutely changing that, because she’s one of the standout characters. A lot of the female readers, we’ve put her on such a pedestal. She’s become a verb, almost — like if you Hermione something, that means you fixed it, you had the idea for it, right?
And that means that you went in and you saved the day, or you were the person to come up with the idea that nobody else had, because you Hermioned it.
In the books, there’s really nothing to identify the characters’ race, except for the Patil sisters and Harry’s girlfriend Cho Chang. It does mention Hermione’s bushy hair. Did that give you the idea that Hermione could be black?
Because I saw the two movies first, I definitely for a very long time never even questioned Emma Watson as Hermione. I knew that I saw myself in her. But to be quite honest, growing up as a black girl who reads or even engages in pop culture at all in any way, whether it’s film or TV, you become very accustomed to seeing yourself in characters who have nothing in common with you physically or socially.
Exactly. I saw myself in Elizabeth Bennet. We could not be further from each other socially, physically, all of these things. And so you become really accustomed to seeing yourself in people who share nothing in common with you.
But then, after the books were out I was always looking for more because I just love the world. I started to see fan art on Tumblr, and there was this big movement of what’s called “Racebent Harry Potter.” I was coming across these images of Hermione being black, and Harry as a Southeast Asian person.
That’s what expanded my mind. And then I thought about when she needed to become pretty, in book four — the first moment that we are told that she did something to become pretty, what she does is straighten her hair.
A lot of people now are wearing their hair naturally, but it’s still a lot of stigma, and conversations about it, and sometimes a lot of shame that your hair isn’t good enough, your hair’s not the pretty hair.
And so this idea of becoming pretty means straightening your hair and doing all these things to yourself physically. So I felt like there were things in the text that, if it’s your experience, she shared that with you. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
For your web series, what kind of responses have you been getting? Here’s Hermione, a black witch, visiting America, visiting a world that you’re familiar with.
The web series has gotten a lot of positive responses, especially from people who either are black or are people of color or queer people. People who exist on the outside have responded really positively to the show.
And then there have been people who don’t like one thing or another about the show. They either don’t like that she’s not white, or they don’t like that it’s in America. Well, she can’t be a crime-fighting teenager for the rest of her life.
That was what was really driving me. Not only did I see the blackness in her, but I felt like, as women, a lot of times we give up our whole identities and we give up so much of ourselves for the greater good. And I felt for Hermione to work at the [magic] ministry after everything that happened, and to stay in the same boat that she was in when she was 18 years old — it made no sense to me.
I didn’t want her to be another woman who loses her identity to the greater good.
In the Harry Potter books, a Patronus is a spirit creature from the animal kingdom that you can invoke to defend yourself against the worst conceivable evil. What animal is your Patronus?
My Patronus is a chestnut horse, a thoroughbred horse. I’m from Chicago and I’m from the south side, which is all concrete and parks. We don't really have horses.
That’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of, maybe because I love historical books and they’re always riding around on horses. I’ve always wanted to have horses, and I know nothing about it because I’m a city girl through and through!
There are, as you know, extraordinary novels out there — “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “1984.” Why should America read Harry Potter?
I think that what all seven of the Harry Potter books will give readers is, it’s so close to who you are that it will be very easy to find yourself in one or more of the characters. And you would then find yourself on an exciting ride of self-discovery, and you'll really be inspired to see how you could be a positive impact on the world.
Particularly right now, a lot of people are interested in what they can do and how they can be of service to the world. I think that there is no greater book to do that. But you can have so much fun while you’re being inspired.
Granted, we’re not going to be on the picket lines with wands. But reading the books and getting swept up in the fantasy of the battle and the mystery of it all, and the discovery of secrets — there’s so much there in it.
Readers should read the Harry Potter series because it will give them inspiration, but it will also give them an excitement to get out there and do something.
Read the extended interview and listen to the “Patt Morrison Asks” podcast here.
Patt Morrison’s newest book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”
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