Growing up in school, history was my favorite subject. The history teachers I had were awesome storytellers and history is full of all sorts of stories. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking and sometimes they are triumphant. However, the stories are always lessons that those of us living in the present can learn from. We can learn how to be better and make the world better for those who come after us. The lessons from today’s royal wedding will rightfully go down as historic and they should. It is absolutely groundbreaking what a divorced American bi-racial feminist commoner who is the direct descendant of an emancipated slave has done by saying the words “I do!”, and here is why.
As a lover of history, the British Monarchy has always fascinated me. If I were a true historian I would have chosen it as my specialty. Before I decided to become a public school teacher, I seriously considered becoming an academic historian. The schools I looked at the most were schools with strong European History programs (specifically strong in Anglo-Franco policy relations). While my focus would most likely have been on Elizabethan England (let’s face it… who doesn’t love a queen who wears over a pound of makeup on her royal face?), I have always found the monarchy fascinating. It is an institution full of pageantry and tradition since the year 1066 when William the Conqueror came to England in the Norman Invasion.
The fact that the British Monarchy has survived as long as it has (with a few minor interruptions here and there) is an impressive fête all on its own. Throughout history monarchies in kingdoms and empires both large and small have risen only to fall victim to revolution and democratization. From ineffective rulers, peasant revolts, and queens who eat excessive amounts of cake, monarchies can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Especially when most monarchies are predicated on the fact that a minuscule amount of the population controls massive amounts of wealth and power simply for being born of “royal blood.” And although I am an American Patriot through and through, I have a healthy respect for the institution that has led the country that has become America’s closest ally.
The monarchy is an institution built on centuries of tradition and practices that 90% of the rest of the world would consider wrong and outdated. From views on colonialism and imperialism, to the underlying race relations problems that plague the royal family (cough cough… Prince Philip and Princess Michael I am talking about you… cough cough), and a host of other issues that have faced the host nation of the commonwealth realms, the monarchy has come dangerously close at times to losing the support of the majority of the British public. The closest it came was in the immediate days following the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales – Harry’s mother and the parent he most closely resembles in temperament and personality. Thankfully, at these times in history, the British Monarchy has begrudgingly accepted changes and adaptations to those traditions in order to survive.
Many of these changes in adaptations have happened far too slowly and far past the time they should have happened. For example, the only reason Elizabeth became Queen was because her father did not have any male heirs. If he had, they would have been King even if Elizabeth had been older. The laws of succession were not changed until right before the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, Prince George, was born just 6 years ago. The first Earl of Snowden was the first commoner to marry a king’s daughter in 400 years when he married Princess Margaret and divorce was not permitted until they divorced in 1978. The first British commoner women to marry into the senior membership of the royal family was Catherine Middleton just under 10 years ago. But this moment is bigger than any of those moments.
Meghan Markle is eerily similar to Princess Diana in many ways, but there is not an adequate comparison to describe what The New Duchess of Sussex did to modernize the monarchy. Meghan Markle is a self-describe feminist. She is divorced. She is bi-racial. And “worse” yet: she is American. The only other American to marry into the royal family has been Wallis Simpson, who married Edward VIII, Elizabeth’s uncle who abdicated in order to marry her (Queen Elizabeth’s father was the second son). Wallis Simpson died in the 1980s, but she is still one of the most controversial and hated members in the history of the British Royal Family. To most people, myself included, this is extraordinary and it represent a new type of royal family – a type that is part of the lasting legacy of the Princess of Wales.
Princess Diana knew the royal family needed to get rid of the stuffy and stiff outdated images they had. She changed the country with her humanitarian efforts around the world. For touching AIDS patient in the early 1990s to walking through fields of landmines, Diana showed the human side of the royal family. At her death, the Prime Minister called her the People’s Princess; it shouldn’t be surprising that her children – the biggest and most impressive part of her legacy – have followed in her footsteps. Since both the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex have become adults and started advocating on behalf of causes they care about they have signaled a changing of the guard in what it means to be a part of the royal family. I would go so far as to say that it is because of William and Harry that the monarchy has brought the number of anti-monarchists in Britain to under 10% of the population for the first time in decades.
Watching the wedding I am proud of the assertively American touches that Meghan Markle put on her wedding with the man who is 5th in line to the British Throne. When her father was to ill to walk her down the aisle she radiantly walked the first part of the way herself before having Prince Charles walk her the rest of the way. Her first dress was made by the first British women to head the Parisian house Givenchy. Her second dress was much more revealing and also designed by an independent female designer. In edition to her feminist touches she also put her stamp on other pieces of the ceremony as well – and the look on some of the faces of the British Royal family show just how much the changes Meghan Markle added were needed.
Three of my personal favorite touches to the ceremony have NEVER been seen in a royal wedding in the history of Britain. I would go so far as to say they have never been seen in St. Paul’s chapel before. The leader of the Episcopal Church in America, Michael Curry, gave the sermon for the ceremony and it was a doozy! Curry is the first African-American Episcopal church leader which is historic enough, but his evangelical delivery was both inspirational and added some much needed jazz to a crowd of stuffy aristocrats. A gospel choir sang a beautiful version of the song “Stand By Me,” which is according to Kensington Palace, a song that holds special meaning to the couple. Lastly, a prodigiously talented 19 year old Black British cellist played pieces so beautiful it made Doria Ragland, Meghan’s mother, tear up. #BlackExcellence and #BlackRoyalWedding were trending on Twitter. Black American Royalty (Oprah and Serena Williams) mingled with Black British Royalty (Idris Elba…. yes GOD). I am going to go out on a limb and say that is the most people of color that have been in St. George’s Chapel at any point in its history (Britain is 87% white).
While there was much happiness on this special day for both of them, I am left feeling largely sad for both of them for very different reasons. I come from a large family where for the most part, we all get along. Harry had to go throughout this day without his mother. Losing her at 12 set Harry adrift for about a decade before he finally got in touch with the person he is today. I do not think he has ever truly forgiven the press and the public for the way they treated his mother and I know he strives to live up to her legacy every day. However, I was not just sad for Harry – I was also sad for Meghan. She is giving up quite a lot for this marriage, and I truly hope and pray for her that it turns out to be a fairy tale worthy of Walt Disney magic.
Meghan Markle had a career in the public eye before this marriage, but it has to have been hard having to go through something that is supposed to be such a joyous family occasion with only her mother. I know not having her father there was undoubtedly difficult, but it gave us a moment to see a rare tender side of Prince Charles we do not normally get to see. In addition it gives us a moment to see the strong woman that raised a strong woman. I am still in awe of the amount of grace, dignity, and refined poise that Doria Ragland carried herself with throughout these past few days. After looking on as she tearfully beamed with loving pride at her daughter, it is not hard to see how Meghan became such a strong woman – she had a great one as a mom, whose footsteps she could follow in.
In closing, I cannot help but think the weather today is Princess Diana’s doing. Had it been a typical rainy British springtime afternoon, many people would have said that it was Diana crying tears of joy at how happy she was for Harry and Meghan, but this would not have been true. Diana lived her life with with a humanizing grace and radiant beauty that was contrary to everything royal at that point. That is why today was never going to be anything but sunny. A typical day would have been overcast and dreary. So Diana gave us the exact opposite. I don’t claim to know what Diana, Princess of Wales hoped and dreamed of for her children while she was still living, but I do know this: Princess Diana would be so enormously proud of the man that her son has become.
I see so much of Diana in Harry. Perhaps this is why I always have had an affinity for Harry. In my opinion, Harry was always the cute royal who could do no wrong. Naked partying in Vegas only made him more appealing. We could all see ourselves partying in Vegas so what was the big deal? When he quickly apologized for the Nazi Halloween costume, we quickly accepted the apology and put it in the past. We justified this terrible decision as a cry for help. A boy who lost his mother at 12 is going to make some bad decisions along the way, we said. Harry is the royal with personality and sex appeal (Did anybody else see him bite his lip during the wedding after telling his beloved she looked beautiful? It was swoon-worthy). If Diana was the people’s princess, then Harry is the people’s prince. And the people’s Prince could not have chosen a better bride.
I have two hopes for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. I hope royal matrimony is nothing but happiness for two people who are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside. After the broken childhoods experienced by both, they deserve years of bliss. Lastly, I hope the public has learned their lesson. I hope and pray that we give them the space to try and raise a family with as much normalcy as you can, when a member of the royal family. We failed miserably with Charles and Diana. We must not fail again.