Part passive aggressive stress valve, part honest attempt at expressing my continuous frustration with JKR, this first post for Letters to the Author is me at my grouchiest. Future posts will be more moderate. Maybe.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was the first time I read a Harry Potter book I was either nine or ten years old. It was before I moved to Florida and before I knew that there was a certain kind of magic that really only existed in books like yours.
As a small child, I didn’t notice how poor your portrayals of people of color were or how lacking all forms of representation were. You got so much praise for the women you wrote, but aside from my own headcanons about Hermione’s implicit blackness, only a handful of your women were like me.
But you sure wrote a lot of women.
You created Ginny who was fun and a badass who basically got her happily ever after with her high school sweetheart. You created Narcissa Malfoy who lied to Voldemort to his face in order to protect her only son. You created Molly Weasley, who saw Harry as another one of her sons and loved him no matter what. And yes, you created Hermione, a character who was heralded as the brightest witch of her generation.
But then out of all the women in your series, only two or three were reoccurring women of color. None were LGBTQIA. I don’t believe that disabled women existed either. While Molly was described as plump, the only other fat woman onscreen was Umbridge who was awful, but maybe not awful enough to deserve the torture you put her through offscreen by the centaurs.
How about the fact that only Grindlewald and Dumbledore are queer in your series? More so, you didn’t even reveal that in the text, but as an afterthought that you later expanded upon (but not by much).
You also had issues with allegories. All of the racism in your world existed along a magical/not magical axis, focusing on essentially who had the right to be magical and who was less worthy because of blood. Creatures who weren’t human or largely humanoid weren’t allowed to use magic and humans that came from the non-magical world (your muggles) were discriminated against just as much as non-magical humans who came from the wizarding world (your squibs).
Normally, I’m down for a good allegory, but you don’t provide us with anything else. The oppression in your world is so limited that it always made me worry that you didn’t understand intersections of identity and how people could be oppressed one way and privileged in another.
When I heard that your wizarding world would be returning to the big screen with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was tentatively excited. I had owned a copy of the original book as a kid and wasn’t sure how you’d get a movie out of a bestiary.
Then, I heard that it would be set in 1920s New York and I worried.
I worried a lot.
The Harry Potter series just isn’t diverse. I know that now and it’s a serious cause for worry. There are only about eight characters in your original series that you imagined as characters of color – and no, claiming that Hermione was left ambiguous on purposes and her racebending about a decade after your last Harry Potter book was released doesn’t count – and most of them don’t have anything resembling backstories or personalities.
So when I first heard the announcement that you were going to write a story in that nebulous in between period that encircled Prohibition and the Harlem Renaissance, I couldn’t help but imagine and worry how you would let me down. Because as much as Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood, it was a very flawed part of it too.
And then, recently, you released a series of short stories about the state of the American Wizarding World and proved all of my fears as valid starting from the beginning where you smushed America’s incredibly diverse indigenous population into “the Native American community” as if they have ever been a monolith versus hundreds of very diverse groups of people with very different cultures.
Dr. Adrienne Keene — a writer, academic, and member of the Cherokee Nation – has actually written about how your “all in good fun” approach to Magic in North America does more harm than good. Go read her stuff and actually listen. And, just in case you can’t find them on your own, I have some links for you:
There’s also Debbie Reese, another Native writer and supporter of diverse and accurate portrayals of indigenous Americans in fiction. Reese writes about that representation on her site and there’s also a little page here that you might find useful: Native People Respond to Rowling.
Seriously, click those links, Jo. You need to understand where you went wrong with your portrayal of Native Americans as individuals and as members of a wide range of communities and why it’s so damn upsetting. You dismissed Native medicine men as “frauds” in your magical world, coopted a mythological creature that you do not own, and decided that you knew best when it came to representation.
And you were wrong. Dead wrong.
Next, okay. I’ll be honest with you Jo –
I wasn’t expecting you to write about slavery. I wasn’t. Most Black writers don’t even like to think about or write it and so I wasn’t of the mindset that you might try and figure out where slavery would have been affected by magical people. I was however, expecting more than a few throwaway lines about it in your scattered mess of worldbuilding.
For you, here and now, Blackness is an afterthought. You don’t do more than pay a vague sort of lip service to what it could have meant to be Black and magical in your universe. You seem so ready to brush over the realities of slavery and how white wizards would’ve been just as complicit in chattel slavery that carted Africans across the Atlantic for centuries.
Did you even do research, Jo?
I wrote two short stories about a Black witch in the Harlem Renaissance and I did a week’s worth of research on them before I did even the slightest bit of writing because it didn’t matter that I was writing a world that didn’t exist the way I was writing it, it needed to be as accurate as possible. I looked up slang and read fiction written by Black authors during the period. I spoke to family members and looked at online archives to get a bead on fashions.
Only then did I feel comfortable enough to write.
And that was about a character who looks like me and comes from a similar background.
You’re British. Super British. And that’s fine, I guess.
But this – the history of Indigenous Americans and the descendants of enslaved Africans – isn’t your tale to tell (or erase, in both cases). Your Britishness and your unwillingness to recognize when you are overstepping are working against you here. Stories about characters and people of color are not yours to originate or coopt. Not when none of these diverse groups of people get anything resembling the slightest bit of proper representation in anything that you’ve done so far.
Instead of promoting the film with a diverse anthology written by diverse voices, you decided that you knew best. You wrote a version of history in your world that was dismissive to and about the experiences of people who exist to this day. You did that. And so far, I haven’t seen anything where you’ve addressed that or apologized.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them comes out soon. Sooner than I’d like. So far in the trailers we’ve seen, there has only been one person of color so far. That’s how you wrote the film to be. You prefer invisible diversity and allegories for oppression, where oppression centers on magic/no-magic in a way that doesn’t link up with real world issues.
I doubt that will change. I doubt that we’ll be getting a significant amount of representation for diverse Native American people who lived in the United States at the time of your story. I doubt you’ll reference the Harlem Renaissance and Black excellence in the 1920s/30s beyond “quirky black wizards play music for white wizards” or something similarly terrible.
I doubt you will change in how you approach diversity as something you can half ass or throw at fans after the fact.
You might be asking yourself why I’m writing this letter to you, someone that may well never read it in full or in part. All I can say is that I expected better from you.
Whenever I criticize your work, people rush to tell me how you originally wrote the Harry Potter books in a time when England was (supposedly) less diverse when it came to people of color and LGBTQIA people. Despite the fact that my family has lived in parts of Europe (including England!!) from the 40s or even earlier, I’m not allowed to critique the way that you throw diversity at us after the fact because it was a different time then. You were different.
Okay then, maybe you were. Let’s pretend that I’m going to give you a pass on that because of course, no one comes out of the womb and nurses on social justice discourse. It’s something we’ve learned as individuals and supposedly, you’ve learned a lot
But how can you continue to write as if you walked into an alternate version of England where almost everyone is white?
Where there are only three Asian characters and maybe four Black characters despite British reliance on colonialization and the reality of Pakistani, Indian, and Jamaican immigrants alongside people from many of the countries in Africa that came to England.
How could you do some form of research and come up with the script for Fantastic Beasts? How could you reduce the massive and varied amounts of Native American tribes, nations, societies, and whatnot to a monolithic “the Native American community” at one point early on in your short pieces?
How could you look at the wonderful diverse realm of stories that we people of color in America tell about ourselves and our legacies and decide that you can do better after spending what I can only assume was an hour or two on Wikipedia?
It’s been about fourteen years since I saw the first Harry Potter movie – sixteen since I read the first book.
How is it that my nine year old niece is alive in a world where she still doesn’t have hope of seeing a person like her exist in a meaningful position in your works? How is it that there are still only two gay characters in Harry Potter and like… three Asian ones?
How is it that you somehow missed the diversity of the world you lived in and still expect to get ally cookies in response to a half-assed attempt at earning points?
People keep telling me that you’re trying Jo. But I’m just not seeing it. Maybe learn to delegate if you can’t imagine writing about characters of color and other diverse people in your wizarding world, because allegories and offensive portrayals don’t cut it.
A Former Potterhead