By Leanna James Blackwell
“When I wrote this piece, I was thinking about the nature of belonging: who gets invited in, who doesn’t, and why—and what it takes to form our own community, circle, family. Today, I’m acutely aware of how important a genuine community is, not only to our well-being and fulfillment but also to our ultimate survival.—Leanna James Blackwell
It started with the striking images of the wedding watched by 1.9 billion people. I clicked on the links in the tidal wave of social media posts that followed. I wanted to see the African-American minister who married Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the bride’s elegant mother riding in the carriage with her daughter on the way to the ceremony, the joyful gospel choir singing “Stand by Me” in voices that shook the Gothic rafters of St. George’s Chapel. In the slim ribbon of time it took to click through photos, articles, and video clips, I became captivated by a person I’d never given much thought to before. I might have cried. (Okay, I did cry.)
Why? I wasn’t moved by Markle marrying a prince. I find it hard to believe the monarchy still exists. The outlandish privilege accorded to unremarkable individuals by an accident of birth or a fortunate marriage seems bizarre to me, not to mention all that crazy curtsying. I was moved because the British royal family, a symbol of bone-china whiteness if ever there was one, had welcomed into their fold a biracial, divorced American actress and outspoken feminist. Meghan was the first publicly acknowledged black royal in 1,500 years of the monarchy. (The Portuguese Queen Charlotte, married to King George III in 1761, is reputed to be the first). It seemed a celebratory victory for so many of us—Americans, feminists, divorced women, all those not to the manor born—but especially people of color and their families.
People like my mixed-race daughter. People like her biracial father, son of an African-American father and a Norwegian-American mother. People like me, granddaughter of English/Irish/German and who-knows-what-else immigrants. What my ancestors would have said about my mixed-race family I can only imagine, but I didn’t have to guess at my father’s reaction. He made it clear the minute my mother broke the news about our engagement.
“She’s marrying who?” The world would shun us, he ranted. People would slam doors in our face, “throw rocks” at our future child for being mixed (where he grew up, in Kentucky during the Depression, they probably did). Then he met my husband. It didn’t take long for the wild warnings to sputter to a stop. Soon, my father seemed to forget he’d ever felt that way, and eventually grew to prefer my husband over all the rest of us. I understood. I prefer him, too.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were a mixed couple showing their love to the world; in a year, they would be a mixed family. Like countless other families, but in Windsor Castle. If that seemingly impregnable boundary could be knocked down with the power of love, I thought, anything is possible. I had seen it, lived it myself. My father, raised to believe the races should “keep to their own side of the street,” died with an unconditional love for my husband and daughter in his heart. This man, a blue-collar Navy vet who called himself “king of his goddamn castle,” had an unknown door inside of him that opened when I married a black man. Opened wide. If a man like him could do it….
I continued to follow the news about Meghan. I hoped she would be treated well. But in the time it takes to say “Queen Victoria,” the tabloids turned. The newly minted Duchess of Sussex went from darling to diva, hounded relentlessly by the British media, taunted in not-so-coded language about her race. “(Almost) straight outta Compton” read one Daily Mail headline, going on to describe the illusory “gang-scarred” neighborhood in which she grew up. “Uppity,” pronounced a talk-show host, while another mused on the “thickening” of Harry’s thin blue blood in any child he might have with his new biracial wife. The tsunami of gossip and headlines bellowing her supposed sins (she was slammed for eating an avocado) swept away any desire I had to read more.
Prince Harry, reliving the pain of his mother Diana’s death from a paparazzi-caused car crash in 1997, spoke out in on open letter to try to stop the press assault. “My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is…no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
“Get over it,” the press shrugged. She deserves it, they seemed to believe, and kept up their attacks, egged on by an angrily vocal percentage of Britons frightened by immigrants they see as stealing their old way of life. Which apparently includes the right to demand their own pick of a rosy-faced duchess.
You can reach the citadel, but that doesn’t mean you’re welcome there.
They chose to walk away, or “step down” from duties as senior royals, in palace parlance. Harry and Meghan will stop using their “Royal Highness” titles, leave Frogmore Cottage (oh, the charming use of “cottage” to describe a mansion!), and seek a life with their infant son, who knows nothing of the frenzy, outside of Britain. If the headlines were screaming before, after the Sussex’s announcement they were howling.
Let them howl.
There’s a difference between quitting and leaving and it’s as wide as the English Channel. I’m in favor of getting out of the water before you die of the cold.
I got out. I grew up in a family where the lingua franca was violence and tears and booze, daily physical fights and a constantly blaring television. Punished for staying in my room to read books, for getting too “uppity,” I counted the days, making a scratch on the wall of my mind when I went to bed each night, waiting until I was old enough to leave. At 17, I did. It felt like kicking against an undertow, but with a lot of work and a lot of help, I found my way to something that felt like solid ground.
I still got lost. There were countless detours, including one wrong marriage, but eventually I created the life I have now. I went back to school, became a writer, a teacher. I met the man I’ve been married to for 24 years. A man who, like Meghan, is gifted, kind, courageous, and black in a predominantly white community. Far, far from Windsor Castle, but in our New England town some of the same forces are at play.
My husband used to sing in a choir at a Congregational church down the street. He was the only person of color in the congregation. He volunteered on committees and food drives, served as the church treasurer for six years. When our small city held a town meeting to consider becoming a sanctuary city, several members of the church showed up. To argue against it. “We don’t want those people coming here,” yelled one of the choir members. “They’re breaking the law!” A man my husband had stood shoulder to shoulder with every Sunday, singing hymns of Christian love. My husband tried to talk about what was happening. He gave guest sermons and invited people to hear his experience as a man of color in their midst. Only one responded.
He struggled and eventually left for another church, two towns over from ours. I go there now, too. The minister is an African-American man from South Carolina, gay and proud. The congregation loves him. There are groups raising funds for food banks and immigrant shelters, discussion groups for LGBTQ members, meetings for people in recovery. He is happier there than he has ever been. He found his way, not to the promised land, but to a warm good place.
When our daughter started a new middle school, Obama was running for president. She came home every day to tell us about talk in the hallways, kid after kid repeating what they heard at home, the usual array of simian-related slurs. Her classmates felt free to say these things to her; they thought she was maybe Italian or Puerto Rican, not black, and wouldn’t care. She cared. She was 11 years old, but she spoke up, and then we did. Kindly but repeatedly. Nothing changed. Most of the teachers were unperturbed by the burst of adolescent bigotry—kids will be kids. White kids, our daughter pointed out. The few kids of color didn’t talk like that. Her dad went to the school.
“That’s not your father,” one kid cried. He looked scared, as though he’d never seen a black adult male up close before. And maybe he hadn’t. Not the boy’s fault. The boy’s father pulled his son away without a word. We pulled our daughter out of there.
We found another school. Obama was elected.
Our daughter thrived at her performing arts school seven miles and a world away, where a mix of students thronged the halls on their way to classes in African dance, the history of the labor movement, the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Where it wasn’t weird to be a person of color or gay, a student who wears a headscarf or a kid who can’t be scheduled for rehearsals during Passover. Every afternoon when I rushed from work to pick her up, I’d watch her friends throw their arms around each other, hugging tight, before running to the waiting cars. Goodbye, love you! Love you back! See you tomorrow! I’d sit in my car grinning like a maniac, wishing every child in the world could have an experience like that. Safe. Accepted. Loved.
Our daughter is 23 and in Boston now, in love with a wonderful woman, on her way. Her friends are Dominican, Jamaican, white, Japanese, African-American, mixed, gay, happy. She comes home on the weekends often to see us. We go for hikes or curl up on the couch with tea and talk about music (“Check out this EDM mix, Mom”), an upcoming women’s march (“We have to go”), the news about Meghan and Harry’s move to Los Angeles (“Good for them!”). The British press has dubbed their departure “Megxit,” infuriating my daughter and me. As though two people stepping down from the royal rigmarole is akin to the U.K. leaving the European Union.
No, it bloody well isn’t. Meghan Markle shouldn’t have to stay in a family, an institution, or a role that makes her suffer daily for being who she is. No one should.
I want to see Meghan succeed. I want to see her happy and thriving. I want her to be an example to my daughter, to women and girls of color and to all the rest of us, of standing up to poor treatment and saying enough. Saying you don’t have to swallow it and pretend, you don’t have to tough it out, you don’t have to act as though it doesn’t exist or doesn’t cause pain. Not everyone is in a position to leave, but Meghan and Harry’s globally visible choice suggests that if you can, if it’s safe, go. Leave the ones who howl for your head behind. They will find someone else to howl at, or maybe, maybe…they’ll stop. Not now, maybe not for a long time, but someday. When enough of us say “no.”
Meghan Markle’s life will not be a fairy tale. Neither will ours. No life ever is or could be.
But her life will be better. A tale in which the princess/duchess/black girl has a true happy ending: control of her own life and her own story.
So will my daughter and her father, so will I, as our story, begun decades ago, continues writing itself into the future.