Not Just Another Fairy Tale: Britain, Race & A Royal Wedding

Harry & Meghan, Christmas Day 2017. CC by 2.0

With the pending nuptials of Prince Harry and bi-racial American actress Meghan Markle, the royal wedding fever is reaching a high pitch in a new unusual community: the African diaspora in the US and across the globe.  I confess that as a thirty-something, American-born daughter of African immigrants who were once subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, I find myself less interested in the romance and the “fairy tale” nature of the event than the history and significance of the moment.

Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over the Commonwealth of Nations—formerly the British Empire—the majority of which is filled with people who look more like Meghan than Harry.  On her mother’s side, she is the descendant of slaves and of a slave trade, which massively increased Great Britain’s wealth and that of the royal family. As of Saturday, she will be a new member of this same royal family.

That is no small thing.

Even when I was very young, my parents exposed me to their memories of what British rule was like in East Africa. My mother remembers the excitement when the Queen visited Uganda during one of her Commonwealth tours, but also the segregated transportation she had to ride whenever she and other black Africans came to the city.

In my parents’ nation, the British were perhaps less physically violent in the colonial government they set up (other nations weren’t so lucky) but no less forceful in its assertion that their way to live was superior. In school my parents did not learn of their own history and geography but rather of everything British—hardly useful in rural east Africa. My father told me the story of the Scottish headmaster at his school who tried to enforce a rule that all the African boys must wear kilts and use Anglo names rather than their own.

My parents’ British education focused on British authors and history to an extent most modern Americans schools do not.  In fact, my parents were so dismayed at the lack of depth in my elementary school reading assignments that they brought me Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and many other English luminaries to read. Additionally, my mother encouraged me to watch these stories come to life in film. It was through them I was introduced to Britain not just in the cursory American teaching of Britain playing the role of colonizer that the Founders threw off through Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

Britain was brought to life for me in many positive ways through its contributions in the arts and literature. I was also a girl who read fairy tales and therefore intrigued by real life royalty. However, it was also from my parents and school I learned of Britain’s dark racist history. In college, I learned that the Brits were major players of the massive Transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated 3.4 million Africans were carried on British ships to territories the British had violently seized from the indigenous people who already lived there.

It was also in school where I formally learned how my own family’s life came to be under the Crown. It was Prince Harry’s great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, who presided over British participation in the so-called Scramble for Africa in the late 19th Century, which took my parent’s homeland under British ‘protection’ in 1894 to guarantee British commercial investments in the region.

Her representatives on the Continent cared little for the interests of the Africans they colonized and focused on extracting maximum financial gain.  They were ruthless in their efforts to keep control of the millions of Africans who surrounded them—turning tribe against tribe; importing troops and foremen from India and elsewhere; asserting white rule oftentimes violently and suppressing many black Africans’ attempt to rule themselves; forcing an Anglo-focused education onto young black Africans;  and taking lands without the permission of the Africans that had long lived there.

The result: many ethnic conflicts on the continent trace their origins to explicit policies of the colonizers and caused issues of political and infrastructure development that linger to this day.

Throughout history, black Africans and people of color generally were pawns for Britain and its royal family whenever it was convenient. Historically, they have been greatest arbiters of the theory that black Africans were inferior and “less-than.”

The recent season of the Netflix series, “The Crown” touches on this in portraying Elizabeth’s visit to Ghana to meet with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s President and a fierce critic of colonialism.  Nkrumah stage-managed the event to emphasize that he saw no need to appear subservient to the European monarch, and certain parts of the British press are portrayed as being scandalized that she was willing to dance with an African leader after dinner.

Reverberations of this sort of prejudice are still felt in another former British colony, the American colonies, to this day. The American Revolution only truly won independence for white colonizers in British North America; the surviving American Indians and the millions of Africans who had been brought to Britain’s colonies in chains were not so fortunate.

Growing up in the American South in the 1980 and 1990s, I did not have to look far to see the legacy of this racist worldview.

White royalists still do try to say the racism of the past is no longer a problem in British society, citing the queen’s recent hiring of a black equerry to bolster their case. Even so, Harry felt compelled to have his personal office send out a statement denouncing the racist and sexist commentary online and in the media against Meghan when they started dating.  When Harry’s mother , Prince Diana was newly divorced, she dated Hasnat Khan, a British South Asian doctor and later Dodi Fayed, a British Egyptian, the media coverage was noted for having racist undertones.

Why? Because royal families, especially in Europe, especially in Britain, came to power and held it by asserting specific bloodlines (of class and later race) that gave them the ‘right’ to rule.  It’s an assertion British society has in turn bought and upheld over the centuries, and this has kept the Windsors around and from suffering the fate of other monarchies.

This assertion was dramatized in last year’s film “Victoria & Abdul” about Queen Victoria’s friendship with her adviser from India, Abdul Karim, and her family’s contemptuous view of the friendship in part because of his South Asian heritage.  This assertion is turned on its head with the mother of the future King, Princess Diana dating outside of her race or Harry’s marriage to Meghan.

Knowing all of this, I find it fascinating the wedding is forcing some interesting conversations in Britain during the current day struggles with Brexit, rising nativism and Windrush Generation politics for the government. As someone whose family has been affected by this history, it’s become important—almost a radical act– to assert our own heritage and humanity proudly.

And it’s fascinating to watch that play out in this royal wedding.

Meghan (also a feminist!) is proud of her mother’s and her own heritage, and has said so. As weddings are a reflection of the couple, especially the bride, Meghan’s picks for the wedding day are strategically highlighting this. The couple have selected the leader of theUS Episcopal Church, Michael Bruce, the first African American to hold that position, to address wedding attendees, and Meghan personally called Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first young black musician to win BBC’s prestigious young musician of the year award, to play at her wedding.

This royal wedding will be the most diverse in British Royal wedding history, and that’s good. It’s high time the Windsors start to look a bit more like the more than 2 billion people of color who are citizens of Commonwealth countries.