Black History Month: Noma Dumezweni

Black History Month: Noma Dumezweni

Hello, dear readers! Dr. Donnelly was meant to take this final installment of black ladies who lead for our celebration of Black History Month, but due to some last minute changing deadlines, I (Dr. Hinson) am back with you again! This week I decided to spotlight another less-well-known black leading lady while marrying our love of all things Harry Potter.

Dr. Donnelly and I are adamant that Abbey Research’s spirit animal, patronus, guiding fictional character is none other than J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger. We model our work practices after Hermione’s bravery, scholarship, empathy, steadfastness, and pragmatism. She is one of the kindest and most intelligent female characters in modern literature. Now you may be thinking, “I remember that character from the movies, and she’s white!”

It is true that for the 8 movie adaptations of the Harry Potter series Hermione was played by British actress Emma Watson, and it is with her face that most people associate the character. Today, I’d like to talk a bit more about representation (my theme for Black History Month) and the role this played in redefining what Hermione looks like.

When I wrote about Ava DuVernay and Dr. Mae Jemison, I discussed the importance of popular culture reflecting our cultural diversity. For Ava DuVernay it was intentionally casting women of color for A Wrinkle in Time and for Dr. Jemison it was seeing Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek. Representation is about empowerment and vision, it is not only about creating roles for people of color, but also about reimagining roles where race is not defined.

Which brings me back to Harry Potter. There was not a lot of representation for people of color in the Harry Potter universe, particularly onscreen. So while an entire generation of young people grew up with their colleagues at Hogwarts, many children of color would not have seen their faces reflected back to them.

When the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (the play written by Rowling in 2016) began casting, there was an uproar when unknown Swaziland-born Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione. Associating the character with Watson, many did not want to see the character change race. Rowling immediately replied to critics stating that Hermione is described in the books simply as “brown eyes, frizzy hair, and very clever” and that race was never specified.

Dumezweni won an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role, and during her acceptance speech spoke passionately about her experiences as a refugee child arriving in the UK. She also spoke at her joy of playing Hermione, who represents such a wonderfully complex person.

Dumezweni boasts an extensive career in theatre as well as work in TV and film, but without doubt her work as Hermione, both on the West End and on Broadway in 2018 are changing the debate about representation of women of color. Equal representation isn’t just about telling new stories where people of color and different ethnic backgrounds are written, but it’s also about the power of reimagining beloved characters in order to reflect that diversity. From our perspective, Dumezweni’s bravery in challenging the perceived race of Hermione is certainly to be commended.

That wraps up AR’s deep-dive into phenomenal black ladies who lead for our celebration of Black History Month. I know Dr. Donnelly and I both hope that the greater representation we are seeing through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child A Wrinkle in Time, and Black Panther will soon be the rule, not the exception! Join us next month as we celebrate non-Western women during Women’s History Month!

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