The black Harry Potter

In Profiling a Book Collection, middle-school librarian Julia B. Chambers discussed a content survey she and some volunteers did of the school’s collection, along with some preliminary results. I wasn’t terribly surprised by her observation that

“Our protagonists are mostly Caucasian and more likely female, with only three in the entire collection demonstrating gender questioning or ambiguity. Two-thirds of our collection feature characters from middle- or high-income families (of which almost all are nuclear in structure). And most of our literary characters are straight (only 13 books featured LBGTQ characters.)”

I don’t know whether these demographics are representative of The Athenian School in Danville, California, where Julia serves as librarian, or whether it’s representative of the available books out there, or whether any of that really matters. Selecting books for a library collection is a non-trivial task, with any number of competing philosophies urging one heuristic or another.

But then she started talking about race. And race in the context of fantasy:

“At quick glance, most of our titles featuring African American characters are historical fiction with themes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or Civil Rights struggles. The black Harry Potters are simply not there.”

Who *are* the black Harry Potters? I racked my brain to try to come up with any non-Caucasian wizard-type protagonists in any books I’ve ever read. I came up with two, neither of whom are black:

Do magic-wielding youth from other cultures and ethnicities truly not exist? Or are they chronicled in books written in other languages, enjoyed by those with the ability to read them, but locked away from those who can fluently read only English, until the glittering hand of some translator should set them free?

Do share the non-Caucasian wizarding books I’ve overlooked, forgotten, or not yet encountered.

1 of 4 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Marcy said,

    June 11, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I LOVED the Earthsea books, and must have skimmed over that description of Ged as non-Caucasian. I think in my mind’s-eye he was “tanned”, whatever that means.

    Yeah, non-white protagonists are hard to find.

  2. Jenica said,

    June 12, 2014 at 4:36 am

    (Knew it already.)

    When you find some, let me know! It is hard to find a book with a black protagonist at all. I’ve been building my library but its sorely lacking the sci fi/fantasy genre! :)

  3. Umaa said,

    June 12, 2014 at 9:17 am

    (Knew it already.)

    I appreciate yoru post, Kiri. As someone who likes fantasy but is not Caucasian (whatever that means), I’ve also had a hard time with this issue. The Song of Ice and Fire Series has plenty of characters with dark skin (from lands that clearly are the Westeros/Free Cities counterparts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia). But the main characters are not. When I’ve asked around for recommendations before, I’ve heard about the work of Octavia Butler (sci-fi) though I’ve never gotten around to reading it.

    You also should remember that part of the problem is that we IMAGINE the characters to be white (myself included) right off the bat because our visual media outlets are still so dominated by white skin, whether or not its warranted by the surrounding prose. However, I get a sanity check every time I listen to NPR and assume the voice on my airwaves comes from a white person, only to hear the name of the speaker and it’s probably someone who’s not!

    And if I may have one more soapbox moment – I *hate* terms white and black. Robs both populations of their cultural heritage. What do a light-skinned Chilean, Kashmiri and Texan have in common? Similarly what does a 4th generation African-American have in common with a newly immigrated Kenyan? It’s been more than a hundred years since Kipling wrote the white man’s burden. I hope looking at people in terms of “race” (which was always a quasi-scientific idea at best) will be gone before I die.

  4. Susan said,

    June 13, 2014 at 10:35 am

    (Knew it already.)

    Thus the core of the RaceFail SFF flamewar. Diversity in fiction, particularly SFF, is such a deep subject.

    For non-white SFF, I recommend _Anansi Boys_ by Neil Gaiman. Not only are the protagonists black, but Gaiman plays around a lot with the narrative devices that lead us to imagine characters as default white. It turned out to be much easier to reverse than I imagined. The main character was from a black neighborhood, and if the characters weren’t black, it was noted when they were introduced. It took me until about halfway through to realize that’s what he was done. By the end of the book, I was well-trained to assume a character was black unless told otherwise. The awareness that this narrative proof-of-concept brought me has affected how I imagine other characters in other stories.

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