When I saw photos of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a headscarf and a bewildered, vaguely hostile expression in the wake of the bombshell departure of the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, my first thought was: They didn’t know who they were messing with.
Most coverage of Meghan Markle’s and Prince Harry’s decision to step back from their royal duties—including their latest decision to not use their “royal highness” titles and repay public funds—has framed the move as evidence of Prince Harry’s effort to protect his family from the same tragic fate that his mother fatally suffered at the hands of pariah paparazzi. But the couple’s maneuvers also bear the distinct imprint of the historical legacies of African-American women’s resistance.
Meghan Markle did not silently abide the increasingly outrageous, unceasing torrents of racism unleashed upon her and her new family (likening baby Archie to a monkey, for example). She did what African-American women have been doing for centuries: She fought back. And she stunned the royal family and the British press in the process. By talking about the difficulties she experienced in a recent interview, she used her voice to address unmitigated bias. This is in line with black women like Addie Waites Hunton, who, in 1904, used her words in The Voice of the Negro to denounce white stereotypes of black womanhood. According to Addie, “Everywhere her moral defects are being portrayed by her enemies; sometimes veiled in hypocritical pity, and again, in language bitter and unrelenting.”
Breaking the silence is only the first step, however. Rejecting exclusionary social institutions in a manner that upends and ultimately transforms those institutions is also a uniquely crafted skillset—one that African-American women have honed over centuries. Consider black women like Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone, who developed beauty and haircare products for women white society had all but ignored, because whites regarded beauty as an impossibility for African-American women. Not only did Walker and Malone reject these racist ideas, but they developed products and created jobs to serve African-American women. Their entrepreneurship pioneered an industry that the very folks who aimed to exclude them ultimately clamored to get a piece of.
I suspect that the popularity of Meghan and Harry in the aftermath will be no different; they were the breaths of fresh air that made the monarchy interesting again. Their departure from the royal family means that energy and enthusiasm go with them. At the same time, Markle, an outsider, a mixed-race black woman from across the pond, turned her back on the monarchy and in effect shined a light on the racist hypocrisy of the royal family, the British press, and, of course, British society more broadly.
The entire episode has effectively ignited an international conversation on anti-black racism (and the royal family’s reprehensible lack of a rebuke of it), and at the same time forced institutional change in how members of the royal family enact their duties: The Duchess and Duke of Sussex have not only cleaved out a deal where they will live part-time in North America but also, they have trademarked the label “Sussex Royal”—suggesting they intend to create and capitalize off of their own brand. Never mind that Meghan has reportedly already inked a deal with Disney, summoning African-American women performers such as Sissieretta Jones, the vocal dynamo who essentially confounded segregation by reportedly singing in the White House, but also entertained audiences abroad in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America in the late nineteenth and early twenties centuries for lucrative sums.
Markle’s step gestures toward African-American women’s unyielding determination to be independent stewards of their own destinies—often in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances and unbeatable foes. This is true when we consider Isabel de Olvera, a mixed-race black woman who in 1600 secured precious legal documents from Spanish authorities before joining an expedition to what would later become New Mexico. She wanted crystal-clear proof that she was not bound by either “marriage or slavery” when she embarked on the excursion.
The same spirit and zest for freedom, independence, and respect are just as prescient in the 1963 protest of Mary Lucille Hamilton, who went to jail for refusing to answer a racist white judge in Alabama because he addressed her as Mary rather than “Miss Hamilton.” Believing black women were entitled to the same treatment in court as whites, she took that battle all the way to the Supreme Court—and she won in 1964.
In today’s parlance, Miss Hamilton effectively insisted that the judge put some respect on her name. We can argue that Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, efficiently instructed the royal family and British press to do the same.
There are folks who might suggest that what goes on with Markle and the royal family is of no consequence to African Americans, but anything a black woman does in the global arena impacts us all. I have seen tired arguments circulating online that question whether Meghan is truly black, either because of her mixed-race heritage or because her husband is white. But Markle has never denied her blackness. In many respects, she reminds me of Fredi Washington, the black actress who could easily pass for white, but always adamantly refused. Famous for playing Peola in the 1934 classic film, Imitation of Life, in 1945, Washington explained to The Chicago Defender:
Personally, I don’t worry about the problem of color. I am a Negro and I am proud of it. I go where I want to and do what I like and enjoy life. I don’t try to ‘pass’ nor do I hang a sandwich sign on me to warn people that I am a Negro or to explain that I am not white. You can see how absurd that would be. I simply act naturally.
Well said, Fredi, well said.
In this instance, not only has Meghan Markle continued in the long tradition of African-American women speaking truth to power, but she also brought the royal family to heel. This, the very monarchy and society that historically served as “the home of colonization and imperialism” in our hemisphere.
I, for one, am proud of Meghan and I am looking forward to what the Duchess and Duke of Sussex do next to better the world and to continue to push back against racism and white supremacy—actions our own leaders desperately need instruction on.