Last year’s wedding of Ms. Meghan Markle and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle was spectacular. Given that this ‘show’ was the most watched television event in the UK, with another 22 million viewers in the US , and drew hundreds of thousands to stand around for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple in person, this wedding had global appeal. The recent announcement of the birth of the couple’s first child keeps the spotlight focused on them. The wedding was an enormous opportunity to (re)shape narratives about racial groups and gender and was filled with symbols of enormous significance—apart from the usual ones—it will be interesting to note how the birth and rearing of their child does the same.
Ms. Markle and her groom seem to be doing their part to address racism and sexism and to using their spotlight to highlight aspects of the black side of her roots in ways that help redefine blackness. Her writing three years ago indicates that the Royals have not yet managed to take away concerns that she addressed speaking of some of the negative responses to the addition of a dark-skinned African American actor to play her TV show father:
The reaction was unexpected, but speaks of the undercurrent of racism that is so prevalent, especially within America. On the heels of the racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, the tensions that have long been percolating under the surface in the US have boiled over in the most deeply saddening way. And as a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both sides of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin in the media, perpetuating stereotypes and reminding us that the States has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.
Markle who describes herself—and has been described by the press—as biracial, is the product of an African American mother and white American father. Typically, such a person is seen as black in the U.S. Racial self-identity, and societal identification may not always align—just ask Tiger Woods about the verbal smackdowns he faced for describing himself as Cablinasian when his society sees him as black. And although he chose to self-identify as African American after much soul-searching, there was no way that President Barack Obama was ever going to be viewed as anything other than a black man in America. Therefore, the fact that Markle is not described as a black woman is notable. I haven’t seen Markle’s self-description challenged in any major way —actually, it has been repeated with apparent acceptance. Does this suggest a loosening of the grip of the often imposed identity of non-White to multiracial people of any race of color plus white? Perhaps this change only occurs in polite conversation as Markle has been subject to relentless racism in online commentaries, forcing the royal family to issue Social Media Community Guidelines. To some onlookers she could probably pass for white; Markle acknowledges that she has attempted to trade on her racial ambiguity to audition for roles calling for a variety of races including black and Latina. Maybe it is her light-skinned, straightened hair appearance that allows for her biracial label to be used so consistently, but that is hugely significant when society has focused on binary racial definitions of black or white.
I scoffed at the notion that Ms. Markle would walk down the aisle unescorted when her father dropped out. Too far from tradition for a royal wedding, I said. Boy, was I wrong! Although it was not the original plan, I read it as a feminist score that Meghan Markle entered St. George’s Chapel unaccompanied. Even the groom walked the entire length of the church with another man— his brother, Prince William. But not Ms. Markle! The self-described feminist entered the chapel on her own (having ridden in a car with her mother), and walked quite capably down the Nave, before she was met by Prince Charles for the journey down the Quire to the altar and her Prince. Perhaps this aspect of the tale has foreshadowing in the fact that 11-year-old Meghan Markle bristled that an advertisement for Ivory dishwashing detergent stated that “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” The young activist wrote to first lady Hillary Clinton, attorney Gloria Allred, and news-reporter Linda Ellerbee about the ad which was changed to say “people all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” Today, Markle’s official Royal webpage highlights her activism and feminism describing her as committed to “women’s empowerment” and includes a quote from her 2015 address on International Women’s Day for UN Women: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”
For many, the wedding dress is the essence of a wedding. And in this case, there had been endless speculation about who the dress designer would be and the style Markle would favor. In the end, another feminist choice: the first female artist-designer of the fabled house of Givenchy–Most Reverend Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in the US. His 14-minute address was fairly typical African American preaching—it was the congregation that differed! He opened and closed his address with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King and spoke of slavery to an audience teeming with British Royalty—whose colossal wealth benefited from the commodification of people.
The mother of the bride, Doria Ragland wore locs! Much has and will be written about Ragland’s clothing but having the mother of the bride in a traditional black hairstyle is another departure from what we see in ‘fairytales’. Another noticeable nod to natural hairstyles worn by black women was Serena Williams’ cornrows and twists, replete with fascinator for the ceremony. We almost never see young black male involvement in European classical music. Yet, this wedding featured three songs from my cousin (seriously!) Sheku Kanneh-Mason the 19-year-old winner of 2016’s BBC Young Musician competition. Kanneh-Mason was not only standing on the shoulders of his great-uncle Roland Prince’s musical legacy, but broadening the box into which young black men are placed.
Unlike many male Royals, Prince Harry wears a wedding ring and the feminist Markle did not promise to obey her husband! Add the predominantly black gospel heavy-weights Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir singing “Stand By Me”, and then Amen/This Little Light of Mine. Later in the program the Prayers were led by Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London and the Reverend Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin—a black Jamaican-born woman (with a low natural hairstyle!). Hudson-Wilkin has been a chaplain to the Queen since 2007 and serves as the speaker’s chaplain in the House of Commons.
The choices made … trickle into how viewers see the world, whether they’re aware of it or not. Some households may never have had a black person in their house as a guest, or someone biracial. Well, now there are a lot of us on your TV and in your home with you…I couldn’t be prouder of that.
This is an almost four-year-old quote from the newly minted Duchess of Sussex on the importance of racial diversity in casting TV roles, but most of it could apply to the wedding she clearly helped to shape and probably summarized her feelings about the event. Atypically, this Royal wedding was not an all-white British affair; it was also black, African American, and feminist in unmistakable ways. Weddings and the British Royal family are steeped in tradition—traditions that ignore white racism, and the humanity of blacks and women. This fairytale wedding has offered new paradigms and that is significant; let’s see whether the birth of Baby Sussex will offer new lenses with which to consider racial groups and gender.