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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2018
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Column: Meghan Markle and the bicultural blackness of the royal wedding

e_SSLqWho are your people?" is the question that repeatedly came to me as I watched Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle’s mother, sitting a few feet from her daughter at Saturday’s royal wedding. A common expression among southern African-Americans when greeting a stranger, it is never simply a matter of bloodline or individual biography. Rather, responses like "I’m the daughter of so and so" or "My family comes from here by way of there" serve the greater purpose of attesting to one’s place in history and potential bonds of kinship.

Despite Ragland being the sole member of Markle’s family at the wedding, we still know so little about her. In contrast to the media obsession with Markle’s father and his children from his first marriage, Ragland is a bit of a mystery who rarely gives interviews. As a result of her silence, we are left to deduce meaning from her physical image. As she sat across from the British monarchy in her pale green Oscar de la Renta dress and coat, it was the symbolism of her long dreadlocks, quietly tucked underneath her hat, that spoke volumes as it reminded us that black women’s natural hair is regal too.

The wedding at St. George’s Chapel was filled with gestures, big and small, that explicitly celebrated her "people" and the various black worlds in which she raised Markle. But it was "what are you?" — a substantially more alienating question than "who are your people?" — that Meghan Markle recalls hearing almost every day of her life. In a 2015 essay for Elle magazine, she wrote, "I’m an actress, a writer, the Editor-in-Chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes. A mouthful, yes, but one that I feel paints a pretty solid picture of who I am." But such an answer is insufficient. Markle went on, "But here’s what happens: they smile and nod politely, maybe even chuckle, before getting to their point, ‘Right, but what are you? Where are your parents from?’ I knew it was coming, I always do."

Over time, Markle has come to reject the racially essentialist premise of the question by refusing to indulge it. On Saturday, she clapped back. Through a series of thoughtfully curated and expertly executed performances, the world came to see Markle as she wants to be seen and, arguably, has always seen herself. As a woman who embraces blackness as forthrightly and easily as she wears a Givenchy wedding dress and Queen Mary’s diamond tiara.

Much has already been made of Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American head of the Episcopal Church, who embraced the soaring rhetoric and improvisational splendor of the African-American sermonic tradition in his invocation. And the 19-year-old cello soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first black musician to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year Award in its 40-year history, gave a spellbinding, virtuoso performance that gently reminded us of the long history and thriving present of black classical musicians.

But, for me, it was the awesome power of the Kingdom Choir — the Christian gospel group from southeast London — and its leader, the renowned gospel singer Karen Gibson, that captivated me. They did not simply give us a rollicking rendition of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me, but rather showcased the sheer breadth of a trans-Atlantic black identity. The hues of their complexions, the complexity of hairstyles (ranging from twists to cornrows to straightened hair) and their facile use of the African-American songbook stood out even more.

Rather than bifurcate race, they offered up a bicultural blackness, one that bridged Ragland’s and Markle’s African-American identities with the black British identity that Markle is about to enter. Such an act of unity cannot ameliorate the ongoing racial hostility that black Britons, particularly the "Windrush generation" — that wave of Caribbean immigrants who migrated to Britain from colonies between 1948 and 1971 — now face as a result of Prime Minister Theresa May’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Against that backdrop, the inclusion of Kingdom Choir, who hail from South East London, took on an even greater significance: Many of them are likely the children of this "Windrush generation" and, in this ceremony, recognized as both fully British and unapologetically black.

The royal couple will now be known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, a name taken from Prince Augustus Frederick, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte and an anti-slavery advocate. Whether or not Prince Harry and Markle will feel comfortable speaking about matters of race going forward remains to be seen. But I take some comfort in knowing that when they walked out of the chapel to Etta James’ Amen/This Little Light Of Mine — the second song, a standard of the Civil Rights movement — they claimed their union as an extension of these racial justice traditions.

In the end, the most significant celebration of racial and gender identity was completely unscripted. As the newlyweds left Windsor Castle, my friends and I rejoiced at another sound we immediately recognized: Interspersed among the crowd’s gleeful cheers, there was a cacophony of black women offering up another song — ululations recognized as congratulatory greetings throughout the African diaspora — to welcome Markle and her new husband home.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit group that uses art to empower young people and end violence against girls and women.

© 2018 New York Times

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