What J. K. Rowling’s North American Content Gets Wrong

Many Harry Potter fans are excited that J. K. Rowling has continued to produce new writing set in the wizarding world, and Pottermore is the online platform through which she can introduce fans to new stories, characters, and histories. At the end of June, Pottermore was updated with the latest installment of the Magic in North America series, part of the author’s world history of magic. “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” tells the story of the North American wizarding school and its founder, Isolt Sayre.

The name of the school was first revealed in March of this year in “History of Magic in North America.” North America is a misnomer, however, as the content is essentially focused on the United States. Canada gets no mention, and Mexico is barely a footnote; other nations are ignored completely.

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J. K. Rowling/Pottermore Ltd.

“History of Magic in North America” is broken down into sections—it begins with “Fourteenth Century–Seventeenth Century” and “Seventeenth Century and Beyond,” then focuses other sections on important moments in wizarding history (such as “Rappaport’s Law”), and concludes with “1920s Wizarding America.” Potter fans were eager to learn about the magical world on this side of the pond, but historians and activists were quick to notice numerous issues with the the way the First Nations of North America and United States history were represented in the story. While writers are allowed to take liberties, Rowling’s creation of the magical world of North America seems to have been done through the Anglocentric lens of a colonial power.

She begins her “Fourteenth Century–Seventeenth Century” section by first mentioning the “European explorers,” eliding the colonist aspects of European immigration to the continent. This leads into Rowling’s mention of the Native American people of North America. Rather than acknowledging the wide variety of Native cultures across the continent, she immediately treats First Nations people as a monolith. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations deconstructs Rowling’s choice of words:

“The Native American community.” Oh man that loaded “the.” One of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognize Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another. There is no such thing as one “Native American” anything. Even in a fictional wizarding world.

Keene continues her analysis by focusing on Rowling’s mention of skin-walkers. Skin-walkers (yee naaldlooshii) are particular to Navajo (Diné) culture. Keene notes that “Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not ‘misunderstood wizards’. Not by any stretch of the imagination.” This plays right into the racist stereotype perpetuated by many white Americans that treats many First Nations people as some magical Other rather than a living, breathing, diverse group of people. Rowling writes that they are “particularly gifted in animal and plant magic,” which again treats Native people as a monolith and appropriates medicinal and religious traditions for some Native peoples, applying them to all. She also treats these traditions like they are something of the past, when there are people who still practice as medicine men—and women—today. This, too, furthers the stereotypes of Native people as mystical and magical, an image long disseminated through white-produced media (notably Westerns). It also seems strange, considering the bloody history of European colonists taking away Native peoples’ land, that in Rowling’s history European wizards are accepted into Native communities for protection, something that seems to erase the violent history that Europeans and Native people actually have in US history.

As Rowling shifts into North American magic in the “Seventeenth Century and Beyond,” her writing suffers from a number of problems that could have been solved through stronger research skills. One glaring error is that in her chronology, the Magical Congress of the United States of America was formed in 1693, before the No-Maj (non-magical) people formed their own Congress. That the name of the magical body includes the words “United States of America” makes no logical sense, as none of the present-day states in the Union were called states in 1693. The first state, Delaware, was still called the Crown Colony of Delaware because—and Rowling should know this—the United Kingdom had declared much of the land that today makes up the East Coast as its colonies. This section also includes discussion of the Salem Witch Trials, which are used to demonstrate that magical people were discriminated against by No-Maj people. It seems to be a common theme brought up in the North American content that the people of this land are more “intolerant” than their European counterparts. What Rowling fails to mention is that the infamous Salem trials took place in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693, at which time it was still a British colony. For that matter, witch trials and hunts also took place throughout Europe, but that fact is not mentioned as an example of “European intolerance.”

From here, Rowling takes a historical leap and moves from early (North) American history to the 20th century. This is where readers encounter the section titled “Rappaport’s Law”:

Rappaport’s Law enforced strict segregation between the No-Maj and wizarding communities. Wizards were no longer allowed to befriend or marry No-Majs. Penalties for fraternising with No-Majs were harsh. Communication with No-Majs was limited to that necessary to perform daily activities.

This seems like some strange bastardization of racial segregation in the US, and it again completely erases the history of people of color here. It appropriates the history of a country where black people were enslaved and then subjected to racial discrimination and laws meant to keep them separate, the legacy of which is still felt today. By creating a copycat law that instead separates “No-Maj” people from magic users, this trivializes the real, lived history of America’s people of color.

While Rowling is a talented world builder and storyteller, as she has left her native shores and moved into new territory, she has displayed a viewpoint shaped by the Anglocentric world of Great Britain. Aside from the issues listed above, this has included such problematic features of the new Pottermore content as Europe having at least three schools of magic, but North America—the entire continent—getting just one, Ilvermorny, named for the founder’s cottage in Ireland. Africa, the second-largest continent in the world and a diverse region of many unique cultures, is mentioned to have some smaller schools of magic, but “only one that has stood the test of time”: Uagadou, which appears to be a reference to the place of the same name tied to the ancient empire of Ghana. South America, too, receives only one for the entire continent, located in Brazil: Castelobruxo, whose name translates simply as “Wizard School.” Similarly, Japan is singled out for one school named Mahoutokoro, meaning “Place of Magic.” Hogwarts is a unique and fun name that gives the location a character all its own, while the schools in other countries are given names based on boring language clichés—simply use Google Translate to find the Portuguese or Japanese words for “magic” or “wizard.” It seems like an accomplished author like Rowling could move beyond such a simplistic convention and instead create names that truly showcase the character of the lands and peoples who run and who will attend these wizarding schools.

While Pottemore is an enjoyable and immersive way to continue experiencing the thrill of the world of Harry Potter, it is important that readers look beyond the presentation of this fictional magical history and see the problematic ways in which it paints North America, its people, and its history as monoliths and stereotypes. A better name for this new content would have been Magic in the United States, as over twenty-three countries, possessions, and territories are left out of the picture. A writer should do justice to their subjects through diligent research and a respect for its history and people, and unfortunately, Rowling has failed to do that and has also erased people from the narrative.

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