The recent news that Noma Dumezweni has been cast to play adult Hermione in a London West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been met with equal doses of delight and fury. In a world where cars can fly, people can morph into animals and you can split your soul into several pieces, it’s somehow a step too far to imagine that Hermione could ever be black.
I am guilty of not being a huge Harry Potter fan. I never really got into the books and watched the films in entirely the wrong order. Don’t worry, I have been duly informed by many fans that not only have I sinned, I can’t have had a childhood. Despite this rather vivid disdain many fans seem to have for me, I have always had this weirdly sincere respect for the Harry Potter fans themselves. It was in this ‘I love love’ kind of way. I found it fascinating how one book series had summoned such widespread adoration.
However, this adoration is part of the problem. The relationships readers have with the characters they love reaches much further than any author could have ever imagined or even hoped for. With Harry Potter in particular, these are characters which many fans have literally grown up with, and to change a single aspect of the character is to make a forgery of the character entirely.
So to make Hermione black is simply a fallacy for some fans. However, it’s not entirely clear what makes Hermione white. She must be white, to you, because she was constructed in your consciousness as being white either the first time you read the book, or from the moment Emma Watson was cast as Hermione. So what if Emma Watson is white? I didn’t realise the casting choices of Warner Bros. back in 1999 would still have such a hold on your imagination seventeen years later.
As far as the books are concerned, Hermione was described as having “lots of bushy brown hair, and rather larger front teeth” and had no explicit race. Rowling herself recently tweeted “White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”. But racial ambiguity isn’t a good enough get-out clause in a franchise as large as Harry Potter. The issue with the canon at large is that many characters do not have an explicitly defined race, but they are all the same assumed to be white by white and non-white readers alike.
Some fans still won’t let an Emma Watson-esque Hermione go, and they’re not the only ones. I know people who stopped watching Doctor Who because Matt Smith simply wasn’t David Tennant. They are technically correct. But Hermione is fundamentally white as much as Doctor Who is fundamentally David Tennant. There’s nothing fundamental about it, it’s just your preference.
Except, in this circumstance, your preference is a little worrying. It is grounded solely in race and not in how smitten you are with a particular actor or Dumezweni’s acting ability. Dumezweni’s race has no bearing on her capacity as an actor, nor does it have any bearing on her capacity to play Hermione, because nothing about Hermione makes her fundamentally white. Changing the race of Hermione doesn’t make her any less hard-working or clever or strong. In fact, it may offer a far more evocative perspective on a character contained within a series in which racial supremacy is such an important issue.
Casting our heroines as systematically white is a much bigger problem than Hermione. However, Harry Potter is a pretty good place to start. In a book series which demands so much already from a reader’s imagination, opening our minds to a black Hermione is hardly such a big ask. To you, Hermione might forever be Emma Watson, but at least give Noma Dumezweni the chance to prove your wrong.
Who knows, you may even come to love her Hermione more.
Illustration: Alice Oseman