Hermione Granger and the Struggle for Social Justice

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione Granger becomes an activist for house-elves. She observes how Winky the house-elf is treated roughly and immediately dismissed by her owner Bartemius Crouch for a crime she did not commit. This injustice leads Hermione to take up the fight for racial equality in the wizarding world, but J.K. Rowling does more than teach young audiences to take a stand when you see something wrong going on in your community. She teaches us that the fight for social justice is an uphill struggle that does not lead to immediate change. Hermione learns this lesson when she meets resistance in the form of the status quo with regard to the role of house elves and the fact that house-elves do not feel their oppression.

When Hermione hears that Hogwarts employs house-elves without pay or benefits, she launches a grassroots campaign to promote change. She creates the organization S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). The aim of this society is to “secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions.” (225) Hermione attempts to rally students to create reform in the school, but she is told every time that she is on the wrong side of the issue. When Hermione explains how house-elf enslavement in the wizarding world goes back centuries, Ron Weasley responds, “Hermione — open your ears. They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” (224) Even Hagrid, known for his love for magical creatures, explains, “I’m not sayin’ there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of ‘em ter do it — no, nothin’ doin’, Hermione.” (265) Hermione’s words fall on deaf ears precisely because of what she mentions to Ron: house-elf enslavement goes back centuries. In the eyes of the wizarding community, that is just the way it is. You cannot expect to easily change an idea that is considered normal and a part of everyday life. Ron and Hagrid’s words point to another problem: house-elves love their enslavement.

Hermione not only has to change the minds of the entire wizarding community; she also needs to convinced the oppressed of their oppression. House-elves love to serve. Fred and George Weasley, when visiting the kitchens of Hogwarts, observe that they look “happy” and “think they’ve got the best job in the world.” (239) Harry Potter and the gang confirm these observations when they visit the kitchens. The house-elves, upon seeing them,“came trotting up. . . bearing a large silver tray laden with a teapot, cups for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, a milk jug, and a large plate of biscuits.” (377) Service is hardwired into the house-elves. When Dobby, the house-elf freed by Harry Potter, mentions how he is enjoying his freedom, the house-elves “started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious.” (378) How can Hermione fight for the freedom of house-elves when they hate the very mention of it? Even Dobby, a lover of freedom, reverts back to his servant ways. When he calls the Malfoys “bad masters,” (381) he seems okay at first but suddenly starts calling himself bad and banging himself on the head. Dobby is incapable, despite being free to do and say as he please, to freely express himself without shock and a feeling of wrongdoing. Dobby’s self-punishment points to how deep this institution runs. This institution has its intricate web in the psyche of house-elves. Hermione will have a tough time liberating the oppressed if they love their oppression and balk at the idea of freedom.

Hermione Granger’s struggle to promote house-elf rights is the struggle for social justice. It is a constant battle that requires, to borrow Professor Moody’s words, constant vigilance. If we are not vigilant and accept things as they are without question, like Ron, that is how systems of oppression are allowed to take root in society and flourish. The battle is not easy. It is a gradual, uphill battle. Hermione learns that change is not going to happen overnight. It will require dismantling an institution that has thrived for centuries and changing ideas that society views as the natural order of things. Tough lesson aside, Rowling does an excellent job of providing young readers with a role model who questions what society deems as normal and challenges injustice when it rears its ugly countenance. In other words, Hermione Granger is woke as fuck.

Banishing the Basements of Bigotry

I have been revisiting the Harry Potter series. I just finished up Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, and I really dig how J.K. Rowling deftly explores the notion that hate is a behavior that is learned and passed down from generation to generation through wizarding families like the Malfoys. Rowling further unravels this philosophy and exposes it for the foolishness that it is through the example of the talented and intelligent witch Hermione Granger.

Hate makes its ugly debut as a theme in Harry Potter when Draco Malfoy calls Hermione Granger a “filthy little Mudblood,” (112) an epithet for a wizard or witch born from Muggle (non-magic) parents. This term is a part of the philosophy of the pure-bloods, wizarding families that claim they are pure because their blood is not mixed with any Muggle blood. Pure-bloods believe they are superior to Muggles. In their eyes, Muggles are base, unworthy, and unfit to learn magic. Harry and Ron learn in their History of Magic class that, over a thousand years ago, Salazar Slytherin harbored this same hatred for Muggles when he founded the Slytherin House. According to their teacher Professor Bins, Slytherin’s founder believed “magic learning should be kept within all-magic families” and “disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy.” (150) This hatred led to the creation of the Chamber of Secrets and the plan to purge Hogwarts of wizards and witches with Muggle relatives. Salazar Slytherin’s belief system from its inception to its current incarnation teaches us that hate is not a natural feeling; it is a behavior that is taught. The seed of hatred for Muggles was planted by Salazar Slytherin and is continuously maintained by future generations of Slytherins.

Rowling further unravels this hate for the harmful behavior that it is by introducing us to the genius Hermione Granger. Despite not coming from a wizarding family, Hermione has proven to be proficient in magic. Though the pure-bloods would believe that people like Hermione are unfit to learn magic, Hermione demonstrates she is more than fit by excelling in the field. Her hand always shoots up in the air with the correct answer to every question. She is able to master new spells quickly. Hermione makes magic look effortless. It is silly to ban someone from practicing magic when they are so damn good at it. She also played a critical role in saving the school by helping Harry identify the monster attacking students as a basilisk. Without that knowledge, Harry would not have triumphed over the monster by avoiding its fatal gaze. If Hogwarts would have followed Salazar Slytherin’s lead and barred talented witches like Hermione Granger from attending the school, Hogwarts would frankly be fucked. It is because Hogwarts accepts people of different backgrounds that the school flourishes and produces talented wizards and witches of many talents like Ms. Granger.

Rowling’s treatment of the subject of hate is just as relevant today as it was when I was a teenager. In the Trump era United States, people in our country experience bigotry, discrimination, xenophobia, and other pernicious examples of hate. Kids need to learn that these behaviors have a root that can be traced. Hate is learned. If we can learn to hate, we can unlearn to hate and replace it with community-boosting behaviors like compassion and love. It is inspiring that authors like Rowling teach younger audiences about important topics like hate in a clever way. We need to educate our kids that your background has no bearing on who you are. Your hardwork and your actions shape your fate.

Bookworms, Unite!

The postliterate society is a term in fiction dating back as early as the 60’s. It means a society where technology advances while reading is either extinct or has reached the point where it is not a common activity. Examples of the postliterate society in fiction include works like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Ilium by Dan Simmons. While bookstores still exist in parts of New York, sometimes I fear my community is moving in the direction of postliteracy. The surprise I experience when I am seen reading and the closure of our only bookstore serve to me as red flags that we are not heading in a positive direction.

I am almost always seen with a book in my hand. I like a good read during my commute to work and sometimes during my breaks. The reactions I experience when caught reading always boil down to one feeling: surprise. One day, I was reading a novel while eating breakfast at my local bagel spot Bagels On Bartow. A lady sitting next to me saw me immersed in my book and wanted to take a picture of me to post on her Facebook page. She explained she wanted to share the great news that people are still reading books. A part of me felt flattered, while the rest of me felt a sense of sadness that reading is viewed as a rarity.

My favorite reaction was from an elderly gentleman who saw me reading while walking (don’t try this at home, kids). The man pointed at my book and exclaimed, “A book! That’s a real book!” Completely blindsided, I was only able to produce a nervous laugh. These reactions bothered me because I know I am not alone. I know people who read, but my community doesn’t seem to have a lot of readers. If they did, it should not come as a shock that I am reading a book.

The recent closure of our local Barnes & Noble does not help my pessimism about the state of reading in my community. Barnes & Noble in the Bay Plaza Mall was the only bookstore of the Bronx. It served as a great hangout spot for readers who wanted to buy books, graphic novels, manga, etc. The problem with the bookstore boiled down to prices. People were not buying books frequently with the existence of Amazon, which offers books at more discounted prices. This probably played a role in why the store closed and was replaced by Saks OFF 5th. Apparently people can afford expensive purses but not a book.

The only silver lining is The Lit Bar, a wine bar and bookstore project by Noelle Santos, which promises to bring a bookstore back to the Bronx. The project was successfully crowdfunded. The only question now is when The Lit Bar will come to the Bronx. I am brimming with anticipation for the day this spot opens in the Bronx.

I am comforted by the fact that I know I am not alone. I am surrounded by awesome people who are woke as fuck and well-read. Bookworms need to unite and show that we are not a dying breed. The Lit Bar was successfully crowdfunded, demonstrating that the Bronx has folks who love to read. We are few, but we are not extinct. We are the last bastion against our community’s descent into post-literacy.