More importantly, though, a study of British and (European) history shows that it’s not “modern” to have a black or mixed-race person in the royal family or aristocratic society. If Britain and its royal family truly want to be modern, its time that the United Kingdom as a nation fully acknowledges its past with black and brown peoples.
In an excellently researched piece for Retropolis, my colleague DeNeen L. Brown writes about how some historians argue that Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the Holy Roman Empire was likely the first mixed-race woman to marry into the British royal family. As Brown notes, historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom argued that “Charlotte was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family: Alfonso III and his concubine, Ourana, a black Moor.” Married to King George III in 1761, she was described as having a “true mulatto face.” A prime minister once said: “Her nose is too wide and her lips too thick.”
However, while Queen Charlotte has been celebrated by Americans (The city of Charlotte, N.C., was named after her, and many streets there bear her namesake), it seemed for a while that she faded from prominence in the minds of the Brits. In a piece for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries noted that “Charlotte is a woman who hasn’t so much intrigued as been regularly damned” in Britain, and that “We have forgotten or perhaps never knew that she founded Kew Gardens, that she bore 15 children (13 of whom survived to adulthood), and that she was a patron of the arts who may have commissioned Mozart.” Jeffries noted the fact that for much of the 19th century, a sculpture of a queen in a square in Bloomsbury was long thought to be Queen Anne. When it was revealed that the sculpture was actually Queen Charlotte, the square was renamed simply “Queen’s Square.” But not “Queen’s Charlotte’s Square.” Interesting.
Charlotte is not the only prominent black historical figure to be whitewashed in European history. Writing for the Root, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounted the story of Saint Maurice, the first black saint, who was born in Thebes, Egypt. He was depicted as a white man in the early middle ages until the 13th century, when he was depicted as being a black African. Gates notes, “scholars believe that Maurice started being depicted as a dark-skinned African at this time because the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Barbarossa, had ambitions to rule the entire world, just as the Pope claimed spiritual dominion over the entire world. We know that Frederick had black Africans at his court and in his retinue.”
A modernizing Britain means way more than having people of color marry their way into the royal palace. A truly modern and progressive European nation would make the effort to correct the historical erasure and whitewashing of the contributions of of black and brown peoples to the building of European society.
Instead, Markle’s addition to the House of Windsor is happening against the backdrop of the the massive state-sanctioned erasure of scores of black people in Britain. Seventy years after the ship Empire Windrush brought Caribbean immigrants to Britain to help with post-war recovery, scores of those immigrants and their descendants who arrived legally in the 1950s and 1960s today face deportation, job loss and the denial of services.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned over the scandal, after she admitted that she misled Parliament about the existence of deportation targets of illegal immigrants. It was also found that the Home Office destroyed the original landing cards (which documented arrival dates) of those who came over on the Windrush. The societal inequality and racism represented by the Windrush scandal, more than Markle’s joining the royal family, is what modern Britain looks like for black people.
Centuries from now, I hope future generations will speak of Markle’s racial identity. Many black/biracial girls and women around the world may see something of themselves in her, and that is important. I can only hope that her presence in the royal palace will inspire Britain to modernize and value the contributions of black people, both past and present.