Why I can’t cape for J.K. Rowling right now
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Like Keene, I’m a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, and a fan of Rowling’s life story. I still find her brave and innovative. In that regard, my assessment of Rowling’s refusal to acknowledge the hundreds of articles and thousands of tweets on her new storyline garners a mixture of confusion and disappointment from me as a supporter of her and her work. Keene’s interview was peppered with frustrations about stereotype and misrepresentation that most people of color know all too well. She describes a scene where a skinwalker dives off of a mountain cliff and “transforms into an eagle” and scoffed at the fact that the scene is actually one we’ve seen before — in Disney’s Pocahontas. Keene, between shaky, emotional sighs, also adds that the backlash she received from Rowling fans on Twitter was disheartening because they brought her credentials into the discussion by claiming that airing grievances over pop culture fare was a misuse of her Harvard degree. What Keene seemed to find most annoying, though, were the constant reminders that Rowling writes fiction, and owes no apologies for the worlds she crafts therein.
The point fans of Rowling sought to make to Keene is true in the sense that she does indeed have creative license to craft her fictional settings in whichever way she pleases. Unfortunately, they misunderstand the point Keene makes about the complex role fiction plays in defining caste, gender roles and what gets fetishized. People who are quick to dismiss the impact childhood literature has on the world are often the same people whom the hegemonic narrative serves. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, Keene is entitled to question Rowling’s ignorance — or motive — in challenging that narrative with regard to one marginalized group (casting black Hermoine), but contributing to the fetishizing and stereotyping of another.
This goes back to Mohanty’s assertion that the reason we have an image in our head about what a “Muslim woman” or “Arab woman” looks like is because we’ve had one side controlling the image of those women. The same goes for the ideas and imagery most consumers of pop culture have about African people, despite it being a huge, diverse continent with a host of different phenotypes, ethnicities, etc. North American indigenous people are no different. Hollywood and other creators of popular culture are fully aware that there are many different tribes with different modes of dress, customs and languages in film and television. Yet, we only see chiefs in beaded headdresses, dances around fires, bare-chested men in loin cloths and moccasins — it’s a trite and singular narrative that isn’t even influenced or controlled by the groups it purports to represent. And the style and delivery of a singular narrative is definitely something that black people the world over are all too familiar with. So in the end, Keene is right and Mohanty is right. But I can’t cape for Rowling right now because she is only half-right. Black Hermoine might be a step forward, but proper representation in Rowling's new series would’ve been pure magic.
M'Shai Dash is a blogger, congressional staffer and freelance writer from Washington, D.C. She loves anime, Afrofuturism, spelunking and Netflix. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat (mmmshai) and on her website.