The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall received an exceedingly warm welcome in Southeast Washington last week, demonstrating yet again that a royal dip in and out of the black side of town can restore luster to even the dullest crown. During a tour of the School for Educational Evolution and Development, District officials got to show off some model black students, and Prince Charles and his new wife, Camilla, got to show that even white people with fairy-tale titles could be real.
"It's very rare for royal people to come to our school," one appreciative student declared.
This brand of international diplomacy writ small was honed to great effect by Princess Di, who got rave reviews in 1990 for a solo visit to Grandma's House, a hospice for AIDS babies in Shaw. Not to be outdone, Queen Elizabeth showed up in Southeast the next year for a visit with Alice Frazier, a black grandmother who offered the queen potato salad and fried chicken and broke centuries of British protocol by giving her a hug.
The world went wild with delight.
But here's the rub: The same formula does not appear to work so well when the visiting royalty is black. Take the case of Francois A. Alyi, crown prince of the Kingdom of Guin in the Republic of Togo, who visited Southeast Washington in 1994. Black children couldn't believe their eyes. Alyi wore a royal purple robe and tried getting to know them by joining in a game of basketball, which only made matters worse.
"He's a real prince? He doesn't act like a prince," one girl said. Her friend declared: "He looks like a preacher. Preachers wear stuff like that."
There hasn't been a black prince in the neighborhood since.
The Queen Mother of Swaziland met with Mayor Anthony A. Williams in his office earlier this year. But who knew? No media hullabaloo at all. "It was just a courtesy call, not part of an official state visit," Sharon Gang, deputy press secretary to the mayor, told me. Still, to dote on a duchess from England while virtually ignoring a queen from South Africa is not what you'd expect from a city where so many residents and their elected officials proudly proclaim themselves to be African Americans.
The District and Prince George's County have "sister cities" in Senegal, and the relationships are supposedly rooted in a common history. Senegal is home to Goree Island, where millions of Africans were held during the 18th and 19th centuries before being shipped across the Atlantic to work as slaves in the Americas.
Whenever African American dignitaries -- from Marion Barry to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- make a pilgrimage to Goree Island, they are treated like royalty. But when the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, came to Washington in December, hardly anyone noticed. There were no tours of the city or offerings of home-cooked meals for him. It's enough to make a sister city go looking for another sibling.
The District has long been a backdrop for international propaganda efforts. During the Cold War, for instance, the Soviet house organ, Pravda, published photographs of a Capitol dome rising majestically above a veritable black shantytown in Southwest -- indisputable evidence, as the communists saw it, of America's racism and the economic failings of capitalism.
District leaders have little control over how images of the city and its people are used by visiting dignitaries. But at least they can start rolling out the same red carpet for the black ones as they do for the white ones. All Prince Charles did for the kids at the SEED school was plant a tree -- a Prince Valiant variety of an English oak -- that represented his heritage. President Wade could have given out pieces of Senegalese art that represented theirs.
Crown Prince Alyi tried to tell the children he met about the great kingdoms of ancient Africa. "Maybe many of you come from a kingdom," he told them. "Maybe you are descendants from a prince or a princess."
Maybe if they heard that more often, they'd come to realize that royalty runs in their veins and not just in those of the blue bloods of England.