Of White Blaise and Black Hermione: The Highs and Lows of my Harry Potter Journey

The year was 1999. My cousin handed me a book, telling me ‘you have to read this.’ It was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was a fantasy book, which was right up my alley, but it was also a kids book. One I felt I was too old for as a teenager. So I sat on it for a while, enduring his endless prodding for me to read it. Finally, I picked it up and read it. It wasn’t instant love. That would come later. While I enjoyed the book, I didn’t automatically seek out the sequel. Then the movie happened. I was spellbound. It was everything I liked about the book but magnified. I immediately went back to my dorm room and dug through my trunk for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

For years, Harry Potter was a solitary obsession. I didn’t go to midnight releases of the books or the movies. I didn’t go to conventions. I waited patiently for the books to be released and kept my thoughts about them mostly to myself. I lurked in Harry Potter forums and read fanfic, but I didn’t participate. Eventually, I would find friends who also loved it. I would attend line parties for midnight screenings of the movies. I wore my Ravenclaw (or Slytherin) scarf with pride. I even made my own Hogwarts student costume. As I immersed myself deeper in the fandom, I began to notice that my experience was mostly a white one. The friends I found were mostly white. The characters I read about, both in the books and in fanfiction, were white with a few exceptions here and there. The movies were no help. After all, they hired a white actress to play a Black character once her role increased. Even while I was enjoying myself, I still felt a little like an outsider looking into a world I wasn’t really part of. That message would be driven home to me later with a little announcement from J.K. Rowling concerning a certain Slytherin named Blaise Zabini.

I grew up on fantasy with little to no diversity, so finding the same in the Harry Potter fandom wasn’t surprising. It was a series that reached people all over the world yet represented different races sparingly. Even the fanfiction I loved to read often relegated the characters of color to the sidelines, if they were mentioned at all. Then Rowling revealed that Blaise Zabini was Black. Before that announcement, Zabini often made an appearance in fanfic. Being a character without a description, authors could transform him (or her, as was speculated by some) into what they wanted him to be. Like with most characters whose race isn’t explicitly stated, Blaise became white. I don’t know how widespread this description was but it was the default one I read in fanfic and saw in fanart. When I heard the announcement of his actual race, I was glad there was another Black character in the series and I excited about all of the fanfic and art that would now feature a Black Blaise. How wrong I was.

Black Blaise wasn’t universally accepted by the fandom in the same way white Blaise was. The character had lost his allure for some. While I felt happy that there was more Black representation in the books, I saw people reacting negatively. The message was clear: a Black character wasn’t as good as a white one. And if they thought that about the characters, what did they think about Black fans? Were we welcomed or just tolerated? It made me want to take a step back from fandom.

I stayed away for a while, disillusioned with this fandom that I had once thought was accepting. Then one day, I saw fanart depicting Hermione as Black. As Black fans, we often find ourselves finding ways to relate to characters who look nothing like us and come from backgrounds completely different from our own. I found my own ways to relate to this trio of white British children, finding similarities in personalities or actions that I would have taken if I were in the same circumstances. I saw myself in Hermione’s quest for knowledge and need to do well in school. Making her Black added another level I could relate to. It made me feel like I was part of the story in a way that I wasn’t before.

What started as a fandom reimagining of a popular character became canon with the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a Black actress, as Hermione in the West End and Broadway runs of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I was amazed by what the power of fandom could achieve. People now saw the smartest student, the one with all the answers, as a Black girl. People saw one of the main characters in this popular series as a Black girl. People were taking control of the narrative and happily injecting more Blackness into it, not taking it out. Black Hermione made me see the books in a new light and drew me back into the universe. This side of fandom became the welcoming, inclusive place I’d always wanted it to be. I wasn’t alone in wanting to see myself reflected in series. I wasn’t alone in craving more strong Black characters while still wanting the ones already there to get more attention.

It started with Black Hermione but through her I found a place where Black characters were brought to the forefront and celebrated, where Black fans spoke up and made spaces for themselves in the Harry Potter world, and in doing that made space for me too. I was no longer looking from the outside in.