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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 won her second Olivier Award in 2017 for her performance as Hermione. It’s easy to see why: She’s masterful in the role. She embodies Hermione and makes her her own. It felt like a privilege to be able to witness it. A lot of seeing Cursed Child up close dazzled me, but it was the fact of seeing her that’s wrapped itself around my brain.
In Cursed Child, Hermione is in her late thirties. She’s the Minister of Magic, running the UK wizarding world while her husband, Ron, takes on the role of primary caretaker to their two kids. She’s bossy as ever — she’s literally the boss. She’s brilliant as ever, too. And her hair, always discussed in the books as bushy and frizzy, is worn out and natural in what looks like a beautiful, kinky wash-and-go.
The actors who play the members of the trio all do a remarkable job of conjuring up the legacy attached to their characters. They make you feel like you really are watching an extension of their stories. I didn’t expect to be as bowled over as I was to see Harry in front of me again, tied up in the sheer responsibility of being who he is. Or Ron, running a joke shop and clearly trying to fill a hole left by the death of his brother Fred. I did expect to be overwhelmed by Hermione — and I was. It’s a singular experience. There’s nothing quite like seeing a dream of yours literally brought to life in front of you.
Millions of other fans are still waiting to see her. Theater is a beautiful medium, but one of its biggest downsides is a lack of accessibility when it comes to stories the masses could benefit from. Though the script of the play is available, there’s no way to fully soak up what Cursed Child has to offer if you can’t get to New York or London — or can’t afford tickets. And as I recently discovered, most of Cursed Child’s glories — from a stunning production to nuanced performances, to the physical reality of this version of Hermione — live and die in actually seeing it. Reading the script doesn’t capture one-tenth of what it’s like to see these actors bring these characters to life. I have no doubt that the show will tour eventually; I also know I’m impatient for the rest of the world to get to see what I saw.
Hermione Granger is a character I will always be grateful for, no matter what befalls the Harry Potter fandom. She’s indelible in me. That’s the case for a lot of us. When I was a child she taught me what it looked like to stand strong in your convictions, and to let your passions guide you even when they’re uncool or get you labeled “difficult.” I was able to see the racism around my own life more clearly through the prejudice she endured because of her world’s blood politics. As I wrote in that 2015 essay: “In middle school, when I was confronting that there were people out there who'd call me ‘nigger,’ I thought back to Hermione being called ‘mudblood’ and harassed by teacher and students alike.” Harry Potter wasn’t the be-all, end-all of my education on those matters. But it was a balm.
There’s no solid proof that Rowling and the producers of Cursed Child took their cue from fandom when they cast Dumezweni as Hermione. But I don’t think that’s the point. Harry Potter and its fandom are in constant conversation with each other, two species of trees with interlocking root systems. One pushes the other, the other either bristles or makes room. Fandom’s Hermione exists in tandem with Cursed Child’s, each living in their own distinct reality and with their own priorities, each worthy in their own right but connected forever. Sometimes they even feel like the same being. But at the end of the day, they’re only two small parts of a bigger picture.
Hermione taught me something as an adult too. Dumezweni’s embodiment of the role showed me what it could feel like when we move collectively forward. What it can look like when space is made at the table. But even before she took the stage, the way that fandom saw Hermione had freed something inside of me. It confirmed that my communities and I can make our own way when we need to — or even just when we feel like it. There’s a beautiful, subversive power in that. We don’t need anyone’s permission to make our art reflect us. We are perfectly equipped to build worlds in which we can thrive. ●