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Black Americans see complications in adulation of Queen Elizabeth II

Floral tributes are left in a park near Buckingham Palace in London following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II’s death at age 96 sparked a global outpouring of grief and kind words for a woman who was beloved by many.

But for many Black Americans, especially those with roots in countries that were recently ruled by the British monarchy, the feelings were complicated and nuanced.

In interviews and social media posts, Black Americans said they respected the queen’s sense of duty and her loyalty to her family, but they also saw in her an embodiment of white supremacy and inequality. Even those who admired Elizabeth understood the impulse of the Black women who took to social media to express their disdain for the ruler of a monarchy that had oppressed millions, a stance that earned many of them scorn.

Natalie Hopkinson, an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, learned that the queen had died from her cousin, an Anglican priest who was born in British-controlled Guyana.

“She very solemnly texted me that the queen had died, and she included a little prayer for her, and I responded, ‘Rest in peace,’ ” Hopkinson said. “The queen was a human being. She was a grandmother. And by all measures she took the role of queen very seriously, and she tried to do her best with it. But you’re still going to feel a certain way about it all.”

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Hopkinson said it’s hard for those who didn’t personally experience British colonialism to understand the complex relationship between the queen and her far-flung subjects.

“You really can’t understand it unless you were, like, a colonized person who lived in a river village in the middle of the rainforest in South America, like my mother did,” she said. “She grew up hailing the queen from her river village with no electricity, and where she had to take a boat to school every day. For a person like her, the queen was a mythical figure from very far away. And so there’s a lot of nostalgia, and there’s a lot of emotion that it dredges up from your childhood.”

Breanna Vivid of Hartford, Conn., is half-Jamaican American and half-African American, and said their Jamaican ancestors were enslaved on sugar cane plantations. Their father lived through Jamaican independence in 1962, nearly 10 years after the queen rose to the throne.

“At first, I admired the queen and the royal family, and it was more because of the glitz and glamour and the importance that they had,” said Vivid, 30. “But when I got older and I started learning more about the atrocities, especially in the countries that my parents come from, that whole entire thing is a mess by itself.”

Vivid said that the queen’s passing presents an opportunity to question the legacy of the British monarchy and its impact on former colonies, including Jamaica and the Indian subcontinent, and their respective diasporas. Calls to return the crown jewels of former colonies have already increased.

“The conversation of reparations has already started in America,” Vivid said. “But now it should be a worldwide thing with the queen’s passing.”

The queen’s death had Melissa Murray, a professor at the New York University School of Law, similarly thinking about her childhood. Murray was raised in the United States but spent long stretches of her childhood summers with her family in Jamaica. As a child, Murray was “obsessed” with the royal family, specifically “the kind of fairy tale element of it.” She said that the royal family just felt “omnipresent” in their lives.

“I was raised in a community where there is tremendous admiration and respect for the queen because of her devotion to duty and her steadfastness,” she said. “But also a recognition that the institution she represents is responsible, maybe primarily, for some of the glaring inequalities that we see around the world in some of these post-colonial societies.”

Murray stressed that her and her family's respect for the queen didn't translate into uncritical veneration of the monarchy.

“I had uncles who would go on for hours about the pillaging of natural resources in Jamaica and how colonialism had essentially divested the country of a lot of its natural resources, and made it dependent on tourism as a principal form of industry,” she said. “So it wasn’t just like supplicant Black people. It was nuanced — they could appreciate her devotion to her role while also understanding that the institution to which she was devoted was one that had very real material consequences in their lives.”

Murray, like Vivid, said the queen’s standing shouldn’t insulate the institution of British monarchy from criticism, which Murray said has been building in recent years.

On the day that Elizabeth died, Murray posted a long thread on Twitter trying to explain the complex relationship she and so many other Black people had with the queen. Murray said that while much of the response was positive, she almost immediately received blowback.

Some told her that Elizabeth’s death wasn’t the time to discuss colonialism; some even questioned if she knew what the word colonialism meant.

“I had one person say these people would be walking around with bones in their noses if it weren’t for White people coming to colonize them,” she said.

“I wasn’t saying ‘Let’s dance on her grave’ or anything,” she said. “I felt like you should be able to do two things at once, respect her life and her legacy of service, while also grappling with the fact that the legacy of the institution she represents, and maybe even that she represents, is perhaps more complicated for certain people. I don’t know why so many people are so problematized by the prospect of people of color talking about the very real circumstances in which they live their lives.”

Murray’s post was tame compared with others.

“I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying,” Uju Anya, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is of Nigerian and Trinidadian descent, wrote on Twitter. “May her pain be excruciating.”

The tweet was later deleted by Twitter after an outcry, including by a British tabloid. Leslie Mac, a North Carolina-based political activist and first generation American of Jamaican descent, said that it seemed to her that Black women were attacked for their posts about the queen in ways that others were not.

“They were way more disrespectful things being said on Twitter; Irish Twitter was really going in,” Mac said. “I saw a lot of White male socialists that were speaking out really directly about this, as well. They all didn’t get hate directed at them; it was specifically directed at Black women.”

Murray said the backlash directed at Black women was part of a wider hostility Black women often face when challenging authority.

“It’s all a piece with the antipathy for Meghan Markle,” she said, referring to the Black actress married to the queen’s grandson who was pilloried by the British news media. “It’s like: ‘Why don’t you shut up? Why are you complaining? You’re lucky to be here, just shut up and stop complaining.’ ”

Mac said that Black people who noted the historical failings of the British Empire were trying to correct what she said was a revisionist narrative that was being pushed by many — that the queen was actually a champion of decolonization.

“My grandmother, my great-grandmother, to great endangerment to themselves and their families, held clandestine meetings to push for the independence of Jamaica,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. Independence wasn’t just given to them by the queen or her government.”

Mac said that she saw parallels between the blowback and the ongoing fight in the United States over what, and whose, history is passed down.

“It was really unsettling to watch this specific component of white supremacy culture … happening in real time,” she said. “Y’all were really out here telling oppressed people that they needed to have reverence and sympathy for their oppressors.”

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