Essays

the powerful magic of the first black royal wedding

It’s official: we have our first black British princess. And her Royal Wedding, on a picture-perfect brilliantly sunny day, signaled the continuation of an incredible stretch of successes for African-Americans the world over this year. Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer Prize. Black Panther gives us a fictional black royal family and a superhero who looks just like us – and shatters ticket sale records worldwide. Director and writer Jordan Peele wins an Oscar. This week at Sotheby’s, Kerry James Marshall‘s panoramic painting “Past Times” sells for $21.1 million, a new record for a living black artist. After the 2016 election, who could have dreamed that 2018 would be The Year of Black Excellence? There are clearly forces afoot in the world that can’t be stopped.

If you were up early (and we were) to watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle live, then you know why we say it was truly a Royal black wedding. As the service unfolded, it became clear that not only was the couple signaling their commitment and love for each other to the world. They were also owning the bride’s African-American heritage – loudly, proudly and indisputably.

She may be biologically half black, but for this wedding, she was all in. As black women, all we can say is: how amazing and wonderful is that? She could have easily chosen to deny that part of herself – as many others have done (yes, we’re looking right at you, Tiger Woods).

Instead, this wedding was nearly as transformative as the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. We felt like we did in that precise moment when he took the Oath of Office on that brilliant January day – that something incredible, something that could only be dreamed about, longed for and prayed for, was actually happening. And we were lucky enough to be alive to see it.

Just think about it, dear reader. (But don’t read further if it will spoil your first viewing of the wedding).

The first glimpse we get of the bride is when the Royal Rolls Royce appears under the brilliant blue sky. Through its glass windows, we can see two radiant women of color: Meghan Markle, wearing a filigreed tiara that once belonged to Queen Mary. And her mother, Doria Ragland, wearing a chic and simple hat and the most beautiful smile imaginable (we later see that she’s wearing a pale green and white coat and dress designed by the team at Oscar de la Renta).

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For those of us who are black, it was like seeing our mother, our sister, our auntie or our cousin getting married – except this wasn’t happening in Atlanta, or Detroit, or even LA. It was happening in Windsor, England, in a redoubt of the most conservative and hierarchical setting imaginable. The descendants of slaves in the place of honor in the British countryside. Wut????

Thousands of people are waving flags and cheering along “The Long Walk,” which is the 2.6 mile-road to the Castle. In all, an estimated 100,000 people turn out to welcome the new princess into the British monarchy. That speaks volumes about England today. Good on you.

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While this processional is unfolding, back at St. George’s Chapel, a black Mercedes Sprinter arrives. Prince Harry and his brother the future King, Prince William, emerge wearing handmade military uniforms and wide smiles. They make for a dashing pair – the stuff of fairy tales and bedtime stories – and we marvel again that this powerful white man has chosen a woman of color as his lifelong partner.

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Prince Charles and his wife Camilla arrive in a Bentley. It’s impossible not to remember the Royal Wedding when Diana was considered to be a wildly radical choice as a bride – a 20-year old ingenue, new to the white-hot light of the press spotlight, making her debut on the world stage. We hope she’s smiling down now, and laughing at just how far this family has come in just one generation.

Queen Elizabeth II arrives in green and purple with Prince Philip, 96, trailing behind. We can only imagine what they’re thinking about their grandson’s choice. We hope it’s something good.

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Ten children under the age of 11 serve as the bridal attendants (there is no maid of honor). Princess Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, is on hand to corral the little ones on behalf of her future sister-in-law. Prince George and Princess Charlotte are among them, causing us to pause to imagine what Christmas is going to be like with them all under one roof for years to come.

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Then the bride arrives, the Chapel bells begin to peal, we spot The Dress, and we forget about all of that.

Meghan Markle has been preternaturally poised since she first emerged as the fiancé of the Prince. Her demeanor as she steps from the Rolls Royce, trailed by two adorable tow-headed groomsmen, is pitch perfect.

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Poised on the steps ready to enter the Chapel, she radiates confidence, serenity and purpose – if you could read her mind, you could imagine her thinking I deserve to be here as much as anyone else, I am now of this place, and I am going to make a difference.

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As the bride walks down the first stretch of the aisle alone. but for her two diminutive attendants, the TV camera rotates to a shot of her mom tearing up. Doria Ragland has a very pretty face that is also extremely expressive. You can see where her daughter’s ability, as an actress, to convey emotion without speaking a word comes from.

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When the future King of England (and her soon-to-be father-in-law) takes the bride’s arm to escort her to the High Altar, it’s immediately clear that the gesture has real power. The Royal Family is signaling to the world: she is now one of us. She is under our protection. Think of her equally with all the rest of us. We hate to say it, but we’re actually kind of glad that Meghan Markle’s father wasn’t there to walk her down the aisle – we know it’s a loss to not have a parent attending your wedding. But it’s incredibly powerful to have the patriarch openly embracing the bride as a beloved new member of the family.

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There’s a beautiful moment between the bride and groom as they turn to face the altar – a look of pure hope and trust. It was lovely, and it felt authentic. It reminded us of our own wedding day.

To be honest, we thought that from there on in, it would be the typical High Church Anglican routine. The Archbishop of Canterbury steps forward and begins to speak, then an all-white choir sings a traditional Episcopalian hymn. An elegant white woman in an over-sized hat reads a passage from the Song of Solomon: set me as a seal on your heart.

Throughout the procession, we had been eagerly searching the audience for black guests. Other than Oprah and Serena Williams, we saw only two others (both females, apparently attending without male companions) in a crowd of 600. We later learn that Idris Elba was there, too.

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Of course, the guests are dapper and elegant: the ladies’ hats are dramatic, their day dresses are properly refined (and largely floral) and the bride’s dress is a masterful combination of pure lines, perfect tailoring and traditional graceful notes like the voluminous lace train embroidered with 53 flowers, one for each of the Commonwealth countries – plus one to represent Kensington Palace, and one to represent the bride’s home state of California. Claire Waight Keller, Artistic Director of Givenchy did the honors, and she absolutely nailed it.

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It’s all very grand and beautiful, and we’re proud to see one of our own in such a setting. But it’s basically the same old, same old.

Until it isn’t.

The American Episcopalian Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry, a regal black man with a magnificent voice and a neatly-trimmed grey Afro, steps to the podium to deliver the sermon. And in an instant, everything changes.

He begins his address by quoting Martin Luther King Jr.: Make of this old world a new world. He speaks passionately about the power of love. Not just romantic love, but all kinds of love. He notes “when you are loved and cared for, it feels right.” He finds passages from a medieval poem and the New Testament to elaborate on what love means and what it can do: it can lift up and liberate. Set me as a seal on your heart, he repeats. Love is as strong as death.

He goes on to quote Hebrew scripture about the importance of loving our neighbors and loving the Lord: on these two things rest everything else. He speaks of American slaves, and the spirituals they sang when in the depths of despair: There is a Balm in Gilead. Down by the River Side. At this point, we are crying, remembering singing those very hymns in black Southern churches in the South with our grandparents. How truly odd and revolutionary to hear them mentioned here.

The Bishop implores us to forge a new human family. He quotes a Jesuit minister about the transformative power of fire. Take it and use it. Harness it to capture the energy of love.

He ends his sermon by coming full circle back to Martin Luther King Jr.: Make of this old world a new world.

Then an all-black choir rises and begins singing a gospel version of the 1960’s song Stand by Me.

We’ve been to black weddings less black than this one! We’re not even sure our own black wedding was this black. Are they going to jump the broom at the reception?

No one is avoiding the third-rail topic of race. They’re going straight at it. Making people deal with it. Laying down markers about who they intend to be as a couple.

There has never been a Royal Wedding like this one. Suddenly, it feels that the new world might actually be within our collective reach.

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But they’re not done yet. A black woman minister delivers a prayer. She has a short Afro and her voice carries the lilt of the Caribbean. Then a man with olive skin stands and delivers a final prayer. His headdress indicates that he might be Muslim. Or from India. It feels as if the entire world is praying for this couple to succeed, for this new world to be fully born.

We assume the service is over now, and we’re without words. The wedding party quietly steps away, through a side doorway, and the guests begin to chatter a bit.

Then an elegant young black man performs a cello concerto. You have to be kidding. We later learn that the musician is Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 19 years old – the first black musician to win the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year Award. We’re transfixed, listening and watching, and realizing just how deep the inclusive strain in this ceremony is running.

When he’s done, the bride and groom return, and underneath nearly one hundred Heraldic flags, in this ancient Gothic Church, they walk down the aisle, emerge into the dazzling sunlight, and begin to descend the stairs.

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The parents of the bride and groom line up across the top of the stairs, and we marvel again that a black mom is shoulder-to-shoulder with the future King of England and his wife. And then that same black gospel choir can be heard again, singing This Little Light of Mine, like a benediction.

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Just in case anyone still wasn’t getting it, the song was just another reminder. The world can surprise you. And if you work at it, it can be made new.

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As the happy couple take a celebratory carriage ride through the village of Windsor, it’s our moment to revel in an astounding experience and reflect on what just happened.

It’s a new day.

We have a true black princess.

We’ve seen an ancient ceremony filled with pedigree, history, ritual and tradition evolving before our eyes into something that honors the past, but that presents a thrilling new vision for the future.

All hail the Duchess of Sussex! Long may she reign. We will always love you, Wakanda. But the real thing is even better.

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