Before it went delightfully off the rails several seasons ago, one of my favourite television shows was Grey’s Anatomy. In season two, in 2005, the writers treated us to one of the best lines ever uttered by Ellen Pompeo, playing a lovesick Meredith Grey. While begging Derek Shepherd’s “McDreamy” to decide between her and his wife, Dr Grey pleads for him to “pick me, choose me, love me”. It was, at the time, riveting. But as someone who checked out years ago from that torturous relationship, to me it now sounds a bit desperate: did you really need a married man that bad, girl?
That’s how I’m feeling about the understandable but over-the-top enthusiasm so many black women have expressed about Meghan Markle’s pending wedding to Prince Harry.
It is not that Markle doesn’t deserve her own real-life fairytale ending. She does. We all do. And it’s wonderful to see a young black — or, if you prefer, biracial — woman in love and flourishing in the spotlight. But what, really, does her storybook romance have to do with us?
People are out there etching virtual hearts on virtual trees as if Markle had a plan all along to sprinkle black-girl magic on the Royal Family in our collective name. Something is getting lost amid all the hype, and I’m not talking about that royal wedding invitation that you’ve been checking your mailbox for.
Unless my eyes deceive me, Harry did not don a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, raise a clenched fist, take a knee and join the revolution. He affianced one black woman from a commercially successful but critically mediocre basic cable series. He didn’t pick us. He didn’t choose us. And I doubt he signed on to the idea that marrying Markle means marrying all of us, by proxy, either.
There will be those who say it’s not that deep — that it’s about sold-out white coats and princess fantasies. A lot of women grow up wanting to be princesses, and some of those women are black. Many happily cleaned out all the Princess Tiana swag sold in big box stores back when Disney’s The Princess and the Frog came out. Many cried tears of joy knowing that their daughters and nieces would get to have an experience they had been denied as little girls. (Even if they had to ignore that — hmm, for some reason — Tiana is a frog for a good chunk of the movie.)
Even I, a cold, snobby cynic, get a little emotional when I think of 1988’s Coming to America, in which Shari Headley’s Lisa McDowell nearly casts aside Eddie Murphy’s humble Akeem after finding out that he is the crown prince of Zamunda — a fictitious nation where his face is printed on the money. (Three-decades late spoiler alert: she comes to her senses.)
But while Zamunda is portrayed as a benevolent, pastoral kingdom, Britain was, for most of its history, something altogether different. As The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted on November 28, there is good reason to temper the black-girl-magic fervour:
“I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t understand why people care so much about this. Have black girls around the world been waiting for the moment that their colonisers had someone in the family who looked like them? Really?”
She reminds us that beyond its undeniable present-day tabloid value, the true scandal of the British crown is how, for centuries, it stood for colonialism, empire and the belief that British values — and, by extension, Western language, religion and culture — were supreme, the rights and lives of others be damned.
Harry may be directly responsible only for his own controversies — the Nazi costume, the Vegas pool party, etc — but the trappings of his royal splendour, to say nothing of his wealth, derive in large part from a long history of conquest.
Some of the reaction to Meghan and Harry reminds me of my own initial response to Michelle Obama, another black woman who put her stamp on an antiquated role. When she became First Lady, black women rejoiced seeing one of us ascend to a pedestal of femininity — even one bound to a patriarchal status quo — that had been, until then, the exclusive domain of white women.
It was an exciting moment: a black woman presented as America’s wife and mother, styled and profiled with reverence and awe. Even when critics decried Obama’s choice to embrace the label “mom-in-chief”, my response was: let us get up on that pedestal first, then we will let you know if we like it.
Like Obama, the soon-to-be Duchess will surely bring it off with flair, but only time will tell if her colour will change how the royals view race or if they talk about it at all. Mainly, she will put a fresh face on the same old monarchy.
So send that evite to your royal wedding watch party. If the spirit moves you, hop across the pond to watch the newlyweds arrive at the palace. Enjoy the hats. Just remember that when all is said and done, Markle’s union will be mildly unconventional, but not especially transgressive.
It’s the stuff of pageantry and pomp, not public policy and paradigm shifts. Like the First Lady’s role, it is symbolic. Markle ever so slightly tweaks the meaning of what a Her Royal Highness is — and what it isn’t. It is a pretty good story, but it is still a fairytale.
The difference this time? It isn’t Snow White.
Danielle Belton is editor in chief of The Root