We Need Harry Potter Now More than Ever

This blog post is a collaboration with Seth Quam. The writing continues the tradition of using my blogging platform as a tool to share ideas that are intentionally flattening of hierarchies and strongly collaborative. What I mean by this assertion is that the Huffington Post has graciously afforded me the opportunity to create collective spaces; I have taken this concept seriously, as a true gift, and as a means to co-author work with an array of people.

For quite some time, Seth, my mentee and friend, has been a part of the Huffington Post egalitarian blogging plan. How fitting that Seth and I are sharing our first installment of what we hope will be a series of commentaries, a few short days before he receives his Bachelor of Arts from Syracuse University, and mere moments since the latest in a spate of disturbing news that we herein seek to address in our own creative ways.

Seth and I began talking about the ideas behind “We Need Harry Potter Now, More than Ever” shortly after the 2016 Presidential Election. Recently, Seth and his brother, Justin, began a podcast about the Harry Potter series, infusing their work with reflective commentary on the current political landscape in the United States. (Soon, the podcast will be connected with a website that will include transcripts of the audio content.) Justin and Seth’s labors, and their ongoing reflections on J. K. Rowling’s work, serve to inform their commitment to “Harry’s” applicability to a new generation of readers, as well as to the rest of us. Justin’s online essay, “The Sorting Hat in the Oval Office,” is one such assertive illustration.

The remainder of this blog post was conjured largely by Seth, with input from, engagement with, and some editing by yours truly. Yes, it is longer than many blog posts. We hope that it will sustain your attention and that you will read it with interest. Please, share your feedback with us. Thank you.

Harry, in Today’s World

Rubeus Hagrid’s words in The Order of the Phoenix are highly relevant to this historical moment: “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” Harry provides me (Seth) with solace and counsel, as I consider Donald Trump’s appointees, and a slew of executive orders that have furthered an agenda of white male supremacy. This agenda advances itself, by definition, at the expense of those people across the world who do not fit into pea-sized Western conceptualizations of the “normal,” the “safe,” or the “pure.”

When the head of the EPA does not believe in climate change, I would certainly classify these times as dire. While resistance to the administration should come in many different ways and intensities, I would like to advocate for a rebellion in the form of radical love and interpersonal healing. In an effort to think about how we treat each other and how to resist in the face of intolerance and violence, I think back to Severus Snape. In so doing, I offer a critique of Snape’s relationship with several key characters and posit the opinion that his actions are unredeemable, inexcusable, and monstrous. I do not, cannot, and will not forgive him. This commentary is the first installment, as Diane noted, in an ongoing series of considerations.

Snape and Lily Evans/Potter

Snape was interested in the Dark Arts from the beginning. Even before Hogwarts, he tells Lily (as relayed to readers in a flashback, in Chapter 33 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) that he wants to be in Slytherin. As a child, he already shows his disdain for Muggles -- he makes a branch fall on Petunia and later shows complete disregard for Petunia’s sadness when Lily leaves for school, saying “she’s only a…” The end of this sentence was definitely going to be “Muggle,” before he catches himself, as he does not want to upset Lily. Snape is sorted unsurprisingly into Slytherin.

Snape’s racism toward Muggles does not abate as he ages; on the contrary, it increases. At school, he befriends a slew of future Death Eaters. Lily sees Snape as a childhood friend and continues spending time with him, even after her friends think this choice is ill advised. Lily eventually calls out Snape for hanging out with Avery and Mulciber, future Death Eaters, but her critique is not successful and has little impact on Snape, it seems. When Lily sees Snape being tormented by James Potter, and comes to Snape’s defense, Snape lashes out at her in his humiliation and calls her a Mudblood. He buys into all of the racism that Voldemort supports to such a degree that he calls Lily, the one person whom he loves above all others, a Mudblood. Later, he tries to apologize. Lily sees right through it:

“It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends. You see you don’t even deny it. You don’t even deny that’s what you’re all aiming to be. You can’t wait to join You Know Who, can you? I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, and I’ve chosen mine.”

“No, listen… I didn’t mean,” retorts Snape.

“To call me Mudblood? But you call everyone of my birth Mudblood, Severus. Why should I be any different?”

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 33)

It is no wonder that Lily was not interested in continuing to be Snape’s friend, let alone entering into a romantic relationship with him, once she realized how deep Snape was into the Dark Arts. The only reason he would ever even interact with a Muggle-Born like herself was because of his own personal infatuation. Furthermore, Snape had no “claim” to her. His love for Lily was not reciprocated. Despite what some people seem to think, just because you love someone does not mean they can or are obligated to return the feelings. Lily did not owe Snape anything; he was a creepy childhood friend who turned out to be a racist scoundrel.

Dumbledore later tells Snape (in Deathly Hallows), “You know how and why [Lily] died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily’s son.” Snape agrees to protect Harry. And, Snape remains deeply infatuated (and obsessed) with Lily for the rest of his life.

Snape suffered his whole adult life because the only person he ever loved married his worst enemy, and then was killed, partially because of his own actions. He took out that pain on others, including his students, co-workers, and seemingly everyone with whom he interacted. So, did he really change after Lily died? Did he become the sort of person who would fight against the Dark Arts because he realized how evil it is? Did he abandon his old ways of cruelty and violence? Imagine if Voldemort’s interpretation of the prophecy had led him to Neville Longbottom and his family (instead of to the Potters). Would Snape have ever changed sides?

Why We Need Harry Now, More than Ever

Many humans are not very good at letting other humans just be. We make life more difficult and more painful for each other, based on how people look, the shape of their bodies, the things they can do (or, our perceptions of others’ “capabilities”), the color of their skin, the makeup of their chromosomes, the people they love, and the places they were born, just to name a few examples of how oppression often works. Even in a magical world in which you can write with pens that taste like candy and have pets who can dig for gold, people like Snape make life miserable for those who are presumably too fat, too strange, too passionate, and too weak.

Recently, my best friend’s sister, someone who in many ways I think of as my own sister, lost her best friend to sudden heart failure. One of my host mothers in South Africa (where I studied abroad, last semester), a dedicated social worker committed to helping others, was in a car accident and lost her arm. A friend and teammate’s mother committed suicide in their front yard. These were a tragic few weeks for me and for many people close to me. I am aware -- and aim to remind myself, constantly -- that it is a lot easier for me to cope with loss and difficulties because the world was and is already “built” for me. I inhabit just about all of the privileged identities I can think of; and, I have been surrounded by support and validation for my entire life. Many grieving people do not have these luxuries.

More to the point, in a world when tragedy strikes with ongoing frequency, much of which is potentially out of our control, it feels more important than ever to engage with all people in ways that uphold dignity and freedom to live in whatever ways one can. I am not advocating for a laissez-faire, “let everyone just do their own thing” type of attitude, which can reproduce already entrenched systems of violence and domination, but, rather, for a concentrated and radical praxis of love. In order to accomplish this goal, it remains vital to critique all forms of subordination, and to address instances as well as patterns of misguided hero worship of anyone, fictional or “real,” who makes it even harder for people to just be.

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