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The controversy over J.K. Rowling’s new African wizard school, explained

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

J.K. Rowling is in trouble over her plan to expand the Harry Potter world into "Africa" — as her official Harry Potter site put it.

Last week, at the Celebration of Harry Potter event in Orlando, actress Evanna Lynch (who plays Luna Lovegood in the films) announced that Rowling had added four new wizarding schools to the Harry Potter universe. The official announcement of the expansion, on the Rowling-sanctioned fan site Pottermore, located the four schools in North America, Japan, Brazil, and ... Africa.

Not any particular African country, mind you. Just Africa.

Twitter exploded with outrage, accusing Rowling of engaging in some of the worst Western tropes about Africa. Rowling quickly clarified that she had a specific country in mind — Uganda. This didn't end the controversy, which expanded as political scientists and historians weighed in as well.

So here's a brief guide to the controversy.

What is this debate about?

Uagadou, the "African" wizarding school.

The basic issue, as you might have guessed, begins with the notion that "Africa" gets one major wizarding school for the entire continent — named Uagadou.

Rowling was almost certainly trying to do something very reasonable here: to include a place that is home to millions of people, but which many Westerners often ignore, in a major global franchise. But in practice, critics say, she kind of botched it.

There is a long, infamous tradition in Western writing about "Africa" to treat it as an undifferentiated mass: a single country, full of woe, with no major differences in religion, culture, politics, or geography. In that vague narrative, Kenya is the same as Zimbabwe is the same as Equatorial Guinea is the same as Uganda: all "African" and, thus, all home to the same history and problems.

"Most people have no understanding of world geography, let alone specific nations in Africa," Rod Chavis writes in a paper given at the 1998 African Studies Consortium Workshop. Chavis blames much of the ignorance about Africa on media portrayals of the continent:

The lifeways of approximately 700 million peoples in fifty-four countries representing, for non-Africans, unimaginable multicultural, polyethnic, polyreligious, multipolitical, and megaeconomic groups are perpetually denigrated...They portray a no there there: no culture, no history, no tradition, and no people, an abyss and negative void.

The problem here isn't just that Western audiences are worse off for reading bad coverage; it's that treating Africa like a giant, homogeneous country is offensive. We'd never think of lumping the UK and France and Germany into one "European" category — they're understood to be different countries with different histories. Treating Africa otherwise smacks of racism, of assuming that only white people can have history.

And indeed, the UK has its own wizarding school (Hogwarts), as does France (Beauxbatons). And while it's not be clear whether the North American school, Ilvermorny, is in the US or Canada, it doesn't really matter: There's no history of intrepid Western foreign reporters treating all of North America as the same.

So regardless of Rowling's almost certainly benign intent in creating Uagadou, she ended up accidentally stepping in one of the most hot-button issues surrounding the way the West talks about Africa:

Do Rowling's critics have a point?

j k rowling (Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

Rowling herself wrote the description of Uagadou on Pottermore, so that's probably the best way to assess how she's approaching Africa. And that approach is largely positive, if perhaps a little incautious.

Rowling wrote that Uagadou students set the international gold standard for self-transfiguration, and that Africa has an important historical role in the wizarding world: "Much (some would say all) magic originated in Africa." And "although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools, there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou."

That's all quite positive. But it is also vague.

And Rowling was similarly vague — at least at first — on the question of where, exactly, Uagadou is. The school, Rowling wrote, is located in "the Mountains of the Moon," but that's not a location recognized by real-world cartographers. It used to be a term used by the Greeks for an unknown mountain range in Africa — it exists only in Rowling's Harry Potter universe.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. There are plenty of things, including Dementors, Azkaban, and wizards themselves, that exist in Rowling's world but not ours. But Beauxbatons, the French school from Rowling's novels, is explicitly located in the Pyrenees, and Hogwarts is British. Placing Uagadou in an imaginary mountain range seems notably unspecific by comparison.

None of these are terrible sins: It's not like Rowling called Africa "the dark continent," or something equally offensive. Rather, it's that her description of Uagadou consistently fails to acknowledge Africa's complicated reality in favor of treating it as a largely undifferentiated mass. This sort of nonspecificity is fine when Rowling is talking about North America, but different when she writes about Africa given the social context.

What did Rowling do in response?

To Rowling's credit, she responded almost immediately to these criticisms when they were raised:

And, indeed, the Pottermore press release now mentions where Uagadou is: Uganda.

How a controversy over a wizarding school spawned a debate among non-magical professors

The online debate over the location of Rowling's new wizard academy has also, somewhat improbably, spawned a debate among real-world academics over the history of state building on the African continent.

Some scholars have tried, tongue firmly in cheek, to defend Rowling's approach to Africa. In a piece for the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, Columbia's Chris Blattman and George Washington's Henry Farrell write that it makes sense that Africa writ large, rather than one specific African country, would have its own magical school.

"There has been a relatively solid English state for the last thousand years, even if its territory has changed significantly over time," Blattman and Farrell write, which explains why Hogwarts exists as a specifically English school. The African continent, they argue, has long had weaker governments and a looser state system, which means that Uagadou would be more likely to cater to students across Africa rather than be rigidly tied to Uganda.

"Even after a state grew up around it, Uagadou would retain many of these linkages and connections (just as the UK Ministry of Magic retained its jurisdiction over Ireland after the Republic of Ireland declared its independence)," they conclude.

But despite its obviously arch tone, Blattman and Farrell's argument drew criticism from historians of African politics. Swarthmore's Timothy Burke, for instance, posted a deep-dive linguistic and geographical analysis on his blog in which he argued that "Farrell and Blattman’s defense of Rowling is more problematic than Rowling herself," before going on to criticize Rowling's choice of Uagadou (a reference to an ancient region in West Africa, far from Uganda) as a name for her academy:

The fact is that the way she picks up a name to stand in for a more respectful conception of Africanity still underscores the degree to which the history of African societies is a kind of generic slurry for most people. If I had imaginary Scots-named people running around in an imaginary Pomerania dotted with imaginary Finnish place names, most readers of my fantasy would understand that I was doing some kind of mash-up, and if I didn’t have some infodump of an alternate history at some point to explain it, they’d likely regard what I was doing as random or incoherent.

But ultimately, this debate is a sideshow to the question of how we see Rowling's own writing on Africa. It is very doubtful that Rowling was intending to make a point about the weakness African state system — as Blattman quite readily points out on his personal blog. He and Farrell aren't so much defending Rowling as they are exploiting the controversy to sneakily educate people about history and political science. That's a perfectly noble enterprise, but one that doesn't help us understand how to think about J.K. Rowling.

So one possible takeaway here is that Rowling's African "slurry" illustrates just how hard it is for even well-meaning Westerners to do justice to Africa's complexity. But there is another conclusion that explains this debate even better: We all love Harry Potter. We all want to see ourselves reflected in Rowling's magical world, and it's hurtful to think we might not be. And even Ivy League professors can't resist an opportunity to write a little wizard fan fiction.