Not too long ago I joined my very first Harry Potter-based fan group, a Facebook group called Platform 9 3/4 (for those of you who care, I was sorted into Hufflepuff). As a result, my feed is full of Potter-related memes these days – everything from silly jokes to tributes to Alan Rickman, and I’m part of a community of passionate fans. I was as excited as anyone to hear about J.K. Rowling’s release of information, in four parts this past week, regarding North American wizards. It comes in anticipation of the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a movie trilogy slated to begin later this year. The movie series is set in historical New York.
As you may know, the very first installment of “History of Magic in North America” (which, by the way, does not at all mention Mexico or Canada), titled “Fourteenth Century-Seventeenth Century,” caused an uproar almost as soon as it showed up on Pottermore, the official Harry Potter website. Unfortunately, J.K. Rowling made some mistakes here. The most obvious one for me, as a non-Native American, was the way she identified the whole population of indigenous people as one big culture. There are other issues, such as her treatment of the legend of the “skin walkers,” a distinctly Navajo tradition that she says has a basis in fact because they are actually Animagi.
Basically, her blunders in this piece can be summed up to generalization and appropriation. She takes a non-mystical culture and claims it for her magical Potter world. She’s guilty of treating Native Americans the way that most stereotypes in literature and other forms of media have done for hundreds of years. (You can read more about this on the Native Appropriations blog and at National Geographic).
I’ve been privy to some discussion about this piece through Platform 9 3/4, and the general consensus of people who don’t get where I’m coming from is this: “It’s only fiction. What’s the big deal?” Coming from people who’ve invested so much time, energy, and emotion into the Potterverse, this is a bit ironic. The problem is that stories have power, and they educate just as much as non-fiction does – maybe more, considering how many people read Rowling’s stories. So many fans missed the whole point of the criticism because they’ve been hearing this same sort of thing and seeing misrepresentation all their lives. They didn’t even notice that the piece was problematic. THAT is the “big deal.” That we don’t know our history, and we accept the homogenization of an entire culture without questioning it at all. If you don’t think this has real-world ramifications, check out the support base of one Donald Trump. The Mary Sue explains the whole controversy better here.
I believe that Potterheards are bristling at any takedown of Rowling, whom they refer to as “the Queen.” Rowling has historically been sensitive to issues of race and gender. She defends Serena Williams, thinks its great that the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” will have a black Hermione, and defends her decision to make Dumbledore gay (selections from her Twitter feed can be found here). But she’s still a white woman who lives in the U.K., not America, with all the privilege that comes with that identification, and she’s human. I don’t think she’s a bad person at all – she just drank the Kool-Aid, and she shouldn’t have. As the creator of a world loved by so many, I wish she’d done better.
This isn’t the only error Rowling has made, although it’s the biggest. As a lover of her stories, I have tried to rationalize other (mostly small) Rowling mistakes. For example, snakes don’t blink in real life, and that bit has always bothered me about the first Harry Potter book (see the scene, early in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where Harry meets the snake at the zoo). I’ve always explained this away to kids at the zoo where I volunteer by saying that “maybe magical snakes don’t blink.” The most glaring example of this in these four short essays that make up the history of North America appears to be the formation of MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, in 1693. I suppose I’m willing to believe that the wizards influenced the naming of the U.S.A….but the thing is, we were still just colonies all the way up to 1776.
My criticism doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the rest of the history, which is interesting both in terms of the differences between Rowling’s English world and the American one, and in its own right. It’s clearly a rich source of potential story material. She goes into the witch trials, segregation, even Prohibition. In doing so, she mentions some of the magical creatures of America, such as Sasquatch, and groups of evildoers such as the Scourers – wizarding mercenaries that played a role in the Salem witch trials.
Rowling clearly tried to incorporate some of the major themes of American history, although she skates a bit over things like slavery (sounds like the Scourers may have been involved here, too), the massacre of her mystical Native Americans, and our wars. She doesn’t even talk about Ilvermorny, the wizarding school, much. I mean, I realize she has to limit the scope just for the sake of brevity, but I’d have liked to know how those issues played out in the wizarding world, and can I get sorted into Ilvermorny or WHAT?
Overall, I liked delving into the American Harry Potter world. “History of Magic in North America” did what it was supposed to, which is to psyche me up for the release of the “Fantastic Beasts” movie and spark my imagination about what wizarding would be like in my own country. I love the world Rowling has created, and I am glad to be part of a community that’s so fiercely loyal to it. I do hope “the Queen” herself, based on the progressiveness she has shown in public, would challenge herself in the future to do better in understanding and representing marginalized cultures, and so I have no trouble doing the same.