There are some pop culture moments that make me wonder whether I’m too woke for my own good. This week’s news about the engagement of Prince Harry of Wales and Suits actress Meghan Markle constitutes one such moment. I sat at my desk on Monday, amused and perplexed by the giddy reactions that crossed my social media feeds. I enjoy engagement announcements, and I’m genuinely happy for anyone who finds love in this difficult world. But the atmosphere of elation was tainted by one word that kept jumping out at me amid the flurry of tweets.
“Finally! A black princess!”
“Finally! A black royal wedding!”
I rolled my eyes. What in the world do y’all mean, finally? Am I the only one not waiting and praying with bated breath that one of the British royals would marry a black woman?
Finally? We’ve been here before. No, I’m not talking about Princess Angela of Liechtenstein. I’m talking about how Disney played us back in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog. I was caught up in the hype back then. The premise of the film was perfect. It was set in the magical city of New Orleans, the lead was a smart brown-skinned entrepreneur, and the soundtrack was top notch. After several successful 3-D animated films, Disney was giving a nod to its golden era of 2-D princesses. Little black girls (and grown women like myself) would finally have the princess we wanted. Our young girls wouldn’t be ridiculed for using the brown crayon on Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty anymore. We wouldn’t feel conflicted for crushing on Prince Eric, wondering if he was into black mermaids. Our time was here, damn it. Bring on the beignets! Princess Tiana was here to kick ass and take names — in a fabulous ball gown to boot.
When I finally I saw the movie, I quickly realized that Tiana was cheated. She spent half the story as a frog. Her prince charming was trifling, broke Naveen of Maldonia. Come on, now. Aladdin was poor, but at least he was clever and showed Jasmine a whole new world! Disney pulled one over on us. We finally got our black princess, but her narrative somehow didn’t feel as whole as other canonical Disney heroines.
The hoopla surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle feels a bit like Disney déjà vu to me. Again, the premise is perfect: a likable British prince bucks tradition and not only marries a commoner, but an American. A biracial American at that. They seem happy and perfectly matched. Black women are hyped about a black royal wedding. The fashionistas among us are beside themselves with anticipation for the #CrownShowdown between British church hats and black American church hats. It all sounds wonderful, but I can’t remove my historian hat long enough to truly partake in the Western world’s collective joy. To be clear, I don’t take issue with Meghan Markle finding her prince charming. I do take issue with the way so many of us are framing this engagement in terms of race and history. In our eagerness to proclaim a black princess, we risk missing an opportunity to deeply examine race, identity, and royalty.
I am an archivist and public historian, and my focus is black American history. It is generally rewarding work, but I have yet to make peace with the attitudes that some people have toward black institutions and achievements. I can inform someone about a local historic black-owned hotel, hospital, or school. I can wax poetic about how our ancestors built legacies and neighborhoods from the ground up. My audience will nod politely and wait for me to finish speaking. But once I mention the first black manager at an elite white hotel, or the first black doctor at a white hospital, or the first black professor at a white college, people’s faces light up. “Wow! How cool! I didn’t know that!” It stings every time this occurs. Not because I believe people who break racial glass ceilings deserve less applause, but because these reactions point to how we view ourselves in relation to whiteness. There are still corners of our collective imagination that are so colonized that even when we know better, we place a higher value on gaining entry into white spaces than we do validating our own.
Black royalty should not be contingent upon gaining entry into white spaces. That so many of us are excited that we finally have a black woman poised to join the British royal family feels odd to me. I understand that it’s a joyous occasion. And goodness knows we all need a break from the harmful shenanigans of our so-called president. Plus, I’m ready to see what wedding lewks Markle will serve once the day comes. But we do her and ourselves a disservice by rushing to celebrate an idea that might not be close to reality at all.
What do we want from a black princess? Does she have to simply look pretty and add a little ethnic flavor and cultural relevancy to the royal family? Will we be satisfied with greens and cornbread served at large dinners at Buckingham Palace? Will we giggle at reports of spades games with William and Kate? Or will we take this engagement as an opportunity to imagine a revolutionary black princess? Do we want a black princess who will challenge the royal family to make amends for its history of brutal colonialism? Do we want a black princess who will proclaim that Black Lives Matter all over the world? Wait a minute — there I go being too woke again.
In 2015, Meghan Markle penned a heartfelt essay in Elle that explored her identity as a biracial woman. It is not my place to tell the stories of mixed race people or to dictate to them how they should embody the heritage of each of their parents. I can only take Markle at her word, and her piece in Elle very specifically states that she considers herself biracial, not black. She muses that as a biracial person, she has a choice to “continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it. You push for color-blind casting, you draw your own box.” Markle is careful not to deny her mother’s race, and I admire her for that. But her essay does not lead me to believe that Markle is running to champion herself as a symbolic princess of black American girls and women. We are trying to bestow a title on a woman who may not even want it, and in doing so, we risk succumbing to a Disney-esque sleight of hand.
Markle commends the producers of Suits on their race-neutral casting, claiming that they “helped shift the way pop culture defines beauty” by casting her instead of a “quintessential blonde-haired, blue-eyed” actress. I don’t believe casting Markle helped shift any beauty standards at all. (Many viewers didn’t even realize her character was black until Wendell Pierce was introduced as her father.) Markle is exactly what so many women want to resemble. Seriously — women are clamoring for plastic surgery appointments to get her nose.
For historical context, Markle views her ethnically ambiguous appearance in a different light than Lena Horne, one of the most celebrated performers of the twentieth century. Throughout her career, Horne was aware of how her light complexion was exploited by Hollywood. “I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” Horne once explained. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.” The palatability of light-complexioned black women is the same today. Decades later, I question whether Markle recognizes how her appearance may have factored into the race-neutral casting for Suits.
We shouldn’t assume that she would use her status to bring attention to heavy racial issues once she’s married to Prince Harry. Markle engages in some admirable philanthropic work, but nothing as politically fraught as police brutality, maternal health, or other issues directly affecting black American women. Perhaps this will change with time. Sure, it may be nice for some to imagine a black princess who advocates for causes that directly affect us, and who will call European monarchies to task for their role in brutish colonialism that continues to affect people today. But we should be careful to both respect Markle’s self-identification as biracial and critically examine what it means for a black woman to join the British royal family. It’s possible to be happy for her and still desire royalty that is more than decorative.
Truth be told, Markle doesn’t have to want to be anyone’s black princess. She really might just want to live out the rest of her days posting photos of herself on philanthropic excursions and creating royal babies with Harry. That’s her prerogative, and that’s totally OK. But what I want is for us to stop rushing for acknowledgment from institutions that aren’t ours, and rushing to ascribe cultural identities to people who may not even desire it. We focus so much on having a seat at tables that don’t belong to us, that we forget that we have tables of our own. We don’t finally have a black princess. Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini of Swaziland and Princess Keisha Omilana of Nigeria are two beautiful black princesses who are out here thriving. Earlier this year, black American Ariana Austin married Joel Makonnen and joined the Ethiopian royal family. But our society is so dismissive of African royalty that these names mean nothing to us. We think so little of non-European nobility that Disney created a fictional country just to avoid Tiana marrying an African prince. That would have been too black, and we can’t have that, can we?
It’s great to see a black woman showered with admiration. It’s alright to be excited for Harry and Meghan as a couple. Hell, it’s alright to celebrate their union. But we can’t project our fantasies of a black princess onto her.
For now, I’ll root for Meghan in the lukewarm spirit that I purchase Princess Tiana merchandise for my nieces and little cousins.
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