Published on September 4th, 2020 | by Nina Pulley0
Harry Potter and the Disappearing Blackness
I am a recovering Potterhead. And when I say Potterhead, I mean Potterhead. (Is it weird that I just now, at twenty-four years old, understand the pun? Moving along…)
Anyway, when I say Potterhead, I mean Potterhead: I owned the DVD versions of almost every movie, even though my family was low-income. I asked for Potter-related gifts exclusively for several years. As a gift in high school, my aunt and uncle took me to the Universal theme park and — as a junior, might I add — I was elated and on the verge of tears the majority of the trip, living out the physical manifestation of many nights reading (or actually, not that many because I devoured the newly released books in a 12-hour period, often foregoing sleep and food, or having a trusty can of pringles nearby to fuel my run.)
It was akin to being in an interracial relationship: the Black folks around me, save one or two, definitely found it weird, perhaps even traitorous, but eventually left me alone. At first, my family thought it was excessive and perhaps even unhealthy, but my palpable excitement for every trailer, merch release, press conference, and celebrity sighting brought them, first grudgingly, and then accommodatingly on board.They knew it to be the not-too-harmful coping mechanism I used to deal with the world. “At least it’s not drugs,” I’m sure they thought.
It was, in hindsight, mortifying in a number of ways, but I don’t fault my four-year-old self for being entranced by the first film when I went to see it with my grandmother, a movie so replete with cinematic scares and fantastical elements that I feel any child would be left somewhat impacted. More than anything, I don’t fault that little elementary-age girl, so much the underdog, for clinging tightly onto the experience of the little boy in the cupboard under the stairs.
Despite my undeniable connection with Harry, loving the series while Black became complicated after a while, particularly when questions of diversity were raised regarding the measly presence of five or six Black characters in a series with literally over 100. I clung to Dean Thomas every moment he was on screen; cheered internally, a smile plastered painfully wide on my face when Lee Jordan narrated the Quidditch game; I was pained to see one of my people, Blaise Zabini, be portrayed in a negative light as Draco’s sidekick, but was still fascinated by his appearance, so denied the vision of a Black presence on screen that every pixel of melanated skin felt like a dip in a sea of being seen.
Yet, as a child, even as race was becoming real to me — albeit much more a spectre in the distance than the skeleton in the closet I came to know it as — I felt Harry’s plight. Denied the fullness of himself and his abilities in an environment hostile towards the unconventional, downtrodden and completely abused by his non-chosen family, I sided with him immediately, just as many of the other young readers who came to love the series did. But I like to think that as a Black girl, I sided with him even more because, even at age eight, when I began to really feel the effects of erasure at school, being the only Black girl in many of my classes since preschool, his experience was mine, giving voice to a condition before I could even express it.
As time passed, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the markedly English, markedly European nationalist themes that emerged here and there: the majority of Quidditch teams hailed from Western Europe; the majority of girls were fair-skinned with straight hair; the majority of spells were derived from Latin, rather than, say, Sanskrit or an ancient African script. And while I can’t fault the author for making the choices she knew best for where she was from, I could neither pretend that I felt included in the subtly racialized aesthetics. Over time, the series that once began as a home for me — an escape from a volatile family environment, from the bullying I experienced throughout school, and from the world at large that sought to devour Black young men and women like me — it began to behave in just the same ways that the unwelcomingly dark world I knew did. Interestingly, this happened long after I completed the series. While these observations dawned little by little as I was an active fan of both the books and films, they came all at once as a part of my radicalization in college, as I began to really put on, or at least crystallize, my identity and my unapologetically, resistantly pro-Black politics. So, the transformation wasn’t painful, but it left a hole where fond memories should have been; it left an uncomfortable question mark around the beliefs that I unconsciously acquired as a kid being a fan of the series. It still leaves me a bit uneasy, almost causing me to want to return to the comfort of willfully ignoring the gaping holes in representation the books left.
I began to see Harry Potter as not a separate, infallible world, but one created by a mere mortal that existed within it, a billionaire, actually, no less. How did my participation in the culture of Harry Potter impact my belief about beauty, worthiness, humanity, and love?
Well, I can say that my first crush, besides a boy named William in kindergarten — a blond, gentle, almost preppy boy, no less (though he was dreamy to my eyes, I recall this sadly because I know desirability politics were at work even then) — was eleven-year-old Daniel Radcliffe. I still remember vividly a dream I had of walking through a misty Hogwarts corridor with him leading the way, bewitched, if you will, by his charm. That literally had an impact on every boy I liked since. Though I did have crushes on Black boys, I learned quickly (due to internalized racism and its begotten colorism) that they were often liable, like others, to ridicule me for my non-White features, and so I stayed away, scorned and humiliated. It just hurt more when it was coming from them. This led me to create an imagined haven of a prince I imagined as White, thanks to the assumed, but false, colorblindness of movie characters, saving me, seeing me for more than what others did, and accepting me for who I was.
This, of course, was a complete lie and it took a whole ‘nother round of unlearning to get that fantasy off rotation. It wasn’t until college that I was fully able to stop praising European features because they matched the faces of the actors who played characters to whom I’d grown attached since childhood. That is a deep trauma to unlearn and heal. But, I did it.
That’s also nothing to say of the obsession that I had with the three main characters. I was obsessed with Emma Watson. She was my queen. I wanted to go to the same boarding school she went to, praising English education as being so much better than the American one, to the point I even learned what A levels and the GCSE was just because I followed her life that closely. I loved her fashion choices, her lifestyle, the way she carried herself, the way she posed in photos, of course unaware of the deeply problematic ways she had acquired such fame. It was none other than her whiteness, her Englishness, and her ability to attend elite schools that even exposed her to the opportunities that allowed her to be chosen to play in the movies. I, instead of being critical of that, drank it all up and wanted nothing more than to be have her life, spend time in the limelight, imagining what it must be like to be that famous, to seemingly be able to have whatever you want and still care about the world (her sustainable clothing collaboration with PeopleTree, and later her run with the #HeForShe campaign with the UN, which has now come under much criticism.)
I had no idea that just as I was embracing the Harry Potter universe in the books — which were themselves peppered with all sorts of English references and thus colonial normalizations — I was embracing the world that the actors came from as well. This is, of course, I think, because I was younger when the films came out and was completely ambushed by their popularity and the universal themes of the story. I embraced them wholeheartedly, while others who were older, and even some who were my age, rejected the films entirely. I still regard them somewhat as purists, but… can I really talk?
Harry Potter, long story short, was a lesson in the power of storytelling but the pervasiveness of White supremacy in every single avenue of media that exists in the world today. It expresses normative modes of being, food, dress, speech, and other customs that inherently exclude other ways of being that are completely different and also completely valid, or at least as valid as the dominant culture, and arguably more, since they weren’t predicated on subjugating other human beings. For the most part, a lot of cultures have problematic elements, but is anything as problematic as Western colonial culture, if you can call it that?
In speaking to my father about my experience, the sadness of realizing something you clung on to as a child was completely problematic, he explained to me what I was feeling better than I could, and probably better than I just did. He told me, in short, that this is not new. This is when I realized that this story is not about me, or Harry Potter at all. It is about the fundamentally human connection that we as Black people are able to draw between ourselves and our characters, the ability we have to identify with a story, even when the world is denying our humanity at every turn. Even when we are downtrodden, abused, and left locked in a cupboard under the stairs, we have magic coursing through our veins.
Nina Pulley is a graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in Africana Studies, an avid artist, and thinker. In song, writing, and protest, she eschews limits in exchange for possibilities. She believes the gospel message is the most radical of them all.