Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Eds note: Updated on June 8, 2015 to reflect Rowling's tweets.

Initial post: July 24, 2007:

The first Harry Potter book came out when my daughter, Liz, was in grade school. We do a lot of reading-aloud in our home, and we read the HP books aloud, taking turns reading.

Liz went out late Friday night to pick up a copy of the seventh book. Saturday morning we began reading it aloud. We finished last night (Monday).

(If you're reading the book and do not want to know any of the content until you've finished it yourself, you should stop reading this post.)

I was reading aloud when we got to page 216. At that point in the book, Harry is looking at a photograph of Albus Dumbledore's family. We were surprised to read this:

The mother, Kendra, had jet-black hair pulled into a high bun. Her face had a carved quality about it. Harry thought of photos of Native Americans he'd seen as he studied her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, formally composed above a high-necked silk gown.

Liz and I were surprised and yet not surprised, given the degree to which pop culture uses Native imagery.

Some thoughts:

Harry/Rowling may be referring to the engraving of Pocahontas, shown above. There is an oil painting based on the engraving, in the National Portrait Gallery. From the Smithsonian website is this info:

Unidentified artist
Oil on canvas, after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe, NPG.65.61
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The engraving was acquired from Maggs Brothers, in London. You can see a larger image here. There's another one here. Note the differences in hat/earrings. There are other paintings of her that Rowling may have seen, but they don't show Pocahontas in the "high-necked silk dress," so I'm pretty sure it is this engraving she's being influenced by.

So what to make of Rowling's inclusion of this passage? Many readers of the books would assert that race /racial purity is a prominent if not THE theme on which the entire series is built on. The cast of characters is diverse, too, but till Deathly Hallows, there had not been anything with regard to American Indians. With this passage, can we say her book is more inclusive now? Is it, really, though? Or, does it matter?

(Note: There's a provocative on-line article about race in Harry Potter... Called "Harry Potter and the Imbalance of Race," its author, Keith Woods, points to the normalization of whiteness in the books.)

As Liz and I read that passage in the book, we wondered if/how it would be developed in the remainder of the book. But, that was it. Given all the romantic new-age imagery associated with American Indians, I wondered if Rowling was going to go there. She didn't, and I am glad she didn't.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

Update, June 8, 2015:

One of my close friends, Sarah Hamburg, wrote to me about a series of tweets Rowling sent out on June 7th. Here's a screen capture of a question to her, and her answer:

Rowling followed up with another tweet:

And then one more:

Definitely unsettling, and something to keep an eye on!


The Local Crank said...

Frankly, we should probably be grateful Rowling resisted the urge to include a stereotypical "magical Indian" and went with something a little more subtle. And now Albus Dumbledore can join most of the white population of Virginia in claiming to be descended from Pocahantas...

Nina Lindsay said...

I was also intrigued when this came up...and relieved to see it not developed much further. Kendra is sort of a sad character, about which no one really knows the full story, since everything about her is through different biased lenses. That's an interesting commentary in itself.

It's also interesting that "Harry thought of"... that is, Harry made the connection. And to remember that British romanticism of Native Americans is slightly different than the American version.

Debbie Reese said...

Two questions for Nina (but anyone can reply):

Harry made the connection, as opposed to whom?

Say more about British vs American romanticism of American Indians...

Nina Lindsay said...

"Harry made the connection" meaning a British schoolboy though of it...as opposed to the omniscent narrator describing her as such.

And while I can't claim to know a lot about British romanticism of Native Americans, I wonder how British textbook coverage of Native Americans is like as compared to ones in the US. Here,coverage of such is usually tangled up in the "forefathers founding of a new country" romanticism that I imagine isn't quite the same in the UK.

ElsKushner said...

I thought that reference-- like most of Rowling's references to race--was clumsy, and was also glad she didn't take it further. There are many powerful analogies with our Muggle-world racism in the series, but she's not so good in dealing with actual human cultural differences.

About the British romanticism about Native Americans: I think it's sort of mixed up--at least as evidenced in British children's fiction--with the romance of America and the wilderness/frontier in general, bearing in mind that England doesn't really have much "wilderness" as such, or the same kind of history (at least not in the last thousand or two years) of an indigenous population that's displaced by European immigrants. I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the children's books that have the most glaringly offensive romanticized Native characters --"Peter Pan" and the "Indian in the Cupboard" series--are both British in origin.

Anonymous said...

In this novel Rowling went out of her way to refer to non-British nations -- Germany and Albania are also mentioned, for example. Is it possible this was just her (admittedly awkward) attempt to include North and South America as she bids farewell to a global readership?

Deimosa said...

I read the article you linked to about race in Harry Potter. That was pretty interesting! It makes sense when you think about it, and the disturbing part is that I didn't even realize I was participating in it until it was pointed out to me. By default I assumed a character was white until I was told otherwise... and didn't notice that I wasn't being given much of any description except for what race they were. And here I am an African-American studies major, trained to look for this kind of thing! It leads me to think about how when they cast the main characters for the movies they had to search for actors that specifically fit the descriptions Rowling gave them, but for characters like Lee, Cho, Angelica, etc they just needed to hire a black boy, asian girl, and so on and so forth. Crazy.

J. L. Bell said...

Isn't it almost as unusual for a Harry Potter novel to mention America at all?