Opinionista Ahmed Olayinka Sule 24 May 2018

Duchess Meghan: The Black face of the British Empire

The Duchess of Sussex’s admission into the House of Windsor has given Britain in general and the royal family in particular a veneer of diversity, inclusion and modernity. But it may be a token and we stand to be disappointed.

On Saturday, 19 May 2018, Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, married Prince Harry at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in front of a global audience of over a billion people. As a result of this union, Duchess Rachel Meghan Markle has morphed from a humanitarian and Suits actress to the black face of the British empire.

By marrying Prince Harry, the newly appointed bi-racial Duchess of Sussex entered the history books by becoming the first person of colour to be part of the British royal family. Accompanying her to the church was her black mother, Doria Ragland, who was the Duchess’s only family member represented at the wedding.

There is so much to distract us from the Duchess’s elevation to the summit of the British Empire (or what remains of it) and who could blame us for being transfixed and distracted by the spectacle of the royal wedding. She looked radiant on the day, just as she looks on any other day. The wedding dress designed by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy was amazing. The 16-foot-long veil was amazing; the flower embroidered on her dress was amazing; the Rolls Royce was amazing; Queen Mary’s diamond tiara was amazing; the carriage was amazing; the church was amazing; the sermon was amazing; the cellist was amazing and the selected guests were amazing.

The newly admitted duchess has married into the Windsor royal family which own the keys to the British Empire, one of the world’s largest, most influential and most brutal empires. We are led to believe that the British empire is no longer in existence even though vestiges of the empire where the sun never sets still remains with us. As at the time of writing, there are 14 British Overseas Territories which are still under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom. The British honour system which rewards individuals for service to the United Kingdom and its overseas territories still references the British Empire. For instance, recipients are given awards like the Knight Grand Cross, Dame Grand Cross, Commander, and Member and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

The Commonwealth of Nations, which is the politically correct name for the British empire, is a hierarchical organisation set up and controlled by Britain. The Head of the Commonwealth is British, the Designate Head of the Commonwealth is British, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is British, the Common Youth Ambassador is British, the Commonwealth Secretariat is headquartered in Britain, the Commonwealth Youth office Network is headquartered in Britain, the Commonwealth Games Federation is headquartered in Britain and the Commonwealth Foundation is headquartered in Britain. One of the predecessor organisations of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (a government organisation set up to protect Britain interest worldwide) was the Colonial Office, created to oversee the colonies of the British Empire. In 1968, when the Colonial Office merged with the Foreign Office, the word colonial was dropped and replaced with the politically correct “commonwealth” and the merged entity was named the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Duchess Meghan, who would have completed her training on how to be a British royal, has wasted no time in understanding her privileged position as one of the custodians of the British Empire. On the day of the wedding, Kensington Palace confirmed that the Duchess of Sussex expressed her wish to have all the 53 Commonwealth countries with her during the wedding ceremony. In response to the duchess’s wishes, the wedding dress designer created a veil embroidered with flowers from each of the 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth.

This wouldn’t be the first time that something precious has been taken from parts of the British Empire, only for it to be worn as an ornament by a British Royal. During the coronations of King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth in 1953, the Queen’s mother wore a crown which contained the 105-carat diamond Koh-i-Noor stone, which was taken from India by the British colonialists. Like the Crown Jewels, this wedding dress containing the flowers from the British Empire would probably end up in a museum where people from the empire will end up parting with their money in order to view it. The significance of the 53 flowers embedded in the veil has gone unnoticed. The 53 flowers representing the 53 countries that were part of the empire were attached to the veil behind her, so as she walked, the 53 colonies trailed behind her. Whatever posture she took on the day, whether she was sitting, kneeling, walking or standing, the 53 countries symbolically looked up to her just like it has looked up to her father-in-law, grandmother-in-law and all their ancestors.

About a month before his marriage to Duchess Meghan, Prince Harry was appointed the Commonwealth Youth Ambassador by Queen Elizabeth during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit. In his role as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, Prince Harry will mobilise young people across the British Empire (who number about 1.2 billion people) to make effective use of Commonwealth platforms. During his speech to youth leaders from the Commonwealth, he said:

I am also incredibly grateful that the woman that I am about to marry, Meghan, will be joining me in this work.”

To put it succinctly, he and his bride have been given responsibility over the future of the British Empire.

Besides taking charge over the youths of the Commonwealth, Duchess Meghan, along with Prince Harry, Prince Williams and Duchess Catherine, are to be deployed as “Super envoys”. With the queen in her ninth decade and Prince Charles just entering his seventh, the future lies with the quartet who are adored by millions throughout the world. An article published in the London Evening Standard titled “Meghan and Harry will be put to test as Commonwealth ‘super envoys’” noted that the newly-wed couple will embark on a Commonwealth tour in October. They are likely to visit Australia and New Zealand where they will be met by thousands of people queuing the streets to catch a glimpse of the “power couple”. When they visit the islands of Tonga and Fiji, they would most likely be carried on a throne by black and brown subjects, just as Kate and William were carried on a throne when they visited Tuvalu in 2012.

With Brexit less than a year away, Britain is keen on forging trade deals with members of the Commonwealth, something which some senior government officials have code named “Empire 2.0” even though the British government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for the crimes committed during Empire 1.0. Harry and Meghan are expected to play a crucial part by using their fame to hoist the Union Jack outside of the European Union. According to the Standard:

The British Government, through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, also hopes to cement ties with old friends and help smooth the path for trade. The couple – along with Charles and Camilla and William and Kate – will play a key role in ‘soft power’ diplomacy for the UK.”

The duchess’s admission into the House of Windsor has given Britain in general and the royal family in particular a veneer of diversity, inclusion and modernity. There are high expectations that the duchess would make a difference to the monarchy and improve race relations in Britain. The wedding has been described by the BBC as a landmark for African-Americans. A BBC African-American columnist wrote:

The diversity on display at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle represented progress that much of the westernised world has yearned to see.”

In a Guardian article titled, The diversity of this royal wedding reveals a Britain far removed from 1981, Angela Foster noted that she was pleased seeing the duchess and her mother on the front pages, watching Oprah Winfrey looking glorious, seeing cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the Kingdom Choir performing and hearing the powerful words of Bishop Michael Curry.

Some members of the black world, who have no stake in the British Empire, celebrated the royal wedding. A number of African-Americans flew to Britain to witness the wedding. In parts of Africa, which was once the ground zero of the brutality of the British Empire, large screens were put up to watch the event while others congregated in bars to watch it. In South Africa, some hosted their own viewing parties.

Unfortunately, the white supremacist power structure has always found it easy to pacify black folks with token solutions. As blacks, we love tokens, hence why we fell in love with this royal wedding, which was full of token gestures. But as Malcom X once said:

Token is not the real thing but it is a substitute for the real thing.”

Once we see a black face in a high place, we sing hallelujah and forget the structural biases that make such a feat the exception rather than the rule. Our over-reliance on symbols and tokens often ends up in disappointment when reality dawns. We risk making the mistake we made in 2008 when we celebrated the election of President Barack Obama to the Oval Office only for our hopes to be dashed when we saw corpses of black and brown bodies left on the streets by the trigger-happy police. If we continue to delude ourselves, believing that the duchess’s marriage to Prince Harry would make the world a better place, we will once again end up disappointed. For those who continue to believe that the royal family have turned over a new leaf and embraced diversity, may I suggest they look at the condescending glances from some members of the royal family (young and old) when Bishop Michael Curry was preaching his sermon.

I know some may be outraged with my assertion that Duchess Meghan is the black face of the British Empire, however, I make no apology for this. There are two choices facing Duchess Meghan. She could be like her mother-in-law Lady Diana who challenged the status quo and brought about some changes to the House of Windsor, or she could maintain the status quo and help preserve the British Empire in the arms of the House of Windsor. Based on the evidence so far, my bet is on the latter – I hope I am proved wrong.

Selah. DM

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