Last weekend's Royal Wedding captured the interests of billions of people all over the world. In Australia alone, the broadcast event pulled approximately 4 million viewers.
The union of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) has long been trawled through the media in its highs and its lows. Celebrity-watchers, monarchists and hopeless romantics alike were not disappointed with plenty of glitter, pomp and ceremony to get tizzy over. Much like Prince Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, Ms Markle’s foray into the highest of high society has created a pop-culture frenzy. The semi-known television star rocketed to being a universal household name and the recipient of the usual microscopic criticism and snobbery would-be royals are subjected to. However, on Saturday, Ms Markle overcame but more importantly she surpassed expectations and, as the kids would say, owned it like a boss.
I confess I know very little about Meghan Markle and to this day having never seen Suits or read The Tig. Since announcing their engagement I've only heard snippets in passing from radio, news programmes or reading hyperbolic headlines on women’s magazines while queuing at cash registers. Suffice it to say the whole ‘celebrity’ around royalty has never peaked my attention, but when the Royal Wedding was labelled a must watch, of course curiosity got the better of me.
I became one of the 1.9 billion people worldwide who watched the pair set aside regal ceremonial script and tradition, and —like many— I was utterly impressed with the unique additions which celebrated Meghan’s African American heritage.
The historic significance of this wedding was so much more than a British royal marrying an American. It signified the British Royal Family welcoming their first member of colour, a sort-of irony which didn’t go unnoticed, but gladly, not unavoided either. Paparazzi shots and various internet reaction videos depicted a few bemused, although well-behaved, expressions from various royals. In particular, the social justice preachings of Chicago Reverend Bishop Michael Curry who referenced Martin Luther King Jr and the misery of slavery. He, a black gospel choir and elements of African American culture scattered throughout the occasion, shaking the the status-quo and unapologetically announcing the coming of a new era for the British royals. Meghan Markle clearly has no intention of integrating into the Royal Family enough to surrender her pride in her culture and heritage.
Meghan Markle clearly has no intention of integrating into the Royal Family enough to surrender her pride in her culture and heritage.
The proudly obvious African American influence on the Royal Wedding, held in one of the Royal Family’s most ancient strongholds, the medieval Windsor Castle, broke down centuries of rarified “whiteness” belonging to the Royal Family and the near-global colonisation their ancestors partook in. Last Saturday was probably the most people of colour ever to walk through the doors of St George's Chapel. In glorious, tasteful and brave fashion we saw Meghan Markle put her heritage out there. At the time of entering St. George’s Chapel blatantly alone and a “commoner” she drew the line in the sand and declared herself to her soon-to-be new family. It was refreshing.
For anyone wondering how Meghan Markle was going to make her mark on the Royal Family, the all-black Kingdom Choir who performed a moving rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” at the ceremony —a song which first rose to popularity during the civil rights movement in the US and has long been an anthem of solidarity amongst people of colour— was an intriguing glimpse. Just like that, Meghan Markle became a royal and transcended pop-culture celebrity to become a steadfast warrior of her culture, and 2018 marks a new future dawn of a more diverse Royal Family and British peerage; one which may see members of the Commonwealth become part of the ruling House which reigns over their governments and societies.
The establishment of the Commonwealth as a vehicle to transition and modernise what was formerly the British Empire into the world’s biggest club is arguably one of Her Majesty The Queen’s greatest achievements. It’s essentially one of the greatest public relations coups known to mankind. It doesn’t take a particularly adept history buff to know of the various controversies around British rule over the centuries, not to mention how many of the ramifications of brutal colonisation are still being felt throughout the former Empire. However unlike the old Empire, a global Commonwealth aims to celebrate the cultural diversity, opportunity and comradery of countries and peoples the Crown had formerly exploited. Prince Harry’s appointment as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador has seen his involvement in the Commonwealth and Royal Commonwealth Society increase. He was instrumental in overseeing the promotion of the Queen’s Young Leaders initiative which aims to highlight the work young people across the Commonwealth do to better their communities.
It doesn’t take a history buff to know of the various controversies around British rule over the centuries, not to mention how many of the ramifications of brutal colonisation are still being felt throughout the former Empire. However unlike the old Empire, a global Commonwealth aims to celebrate the cultural diversity, opportunity and comradery of countries and peoples the Crown had formerly exploited.
He is part of the youthful face of the “new look” royals and is well liked enough to be successful in this role. His love of the Commonwealth also promises to be a duty his new wife intends to take seriously, as shown in the fact her bridal veil was embroidered with the National Flower symbols of each of the fifty-three member states.
Exemplifying modernity and diversity, the newest royal couple are poised to play a huge role within their institution in breaking through long-existing taboos which, if championed with continued vigour could influence the future of Anglo/Indigenous relations and politics in Commonwealth countries. How far Meghan and Harry will go to include black voices into their work while promoting the Commonwealth and Britain’s interests across the globe is yet to be seen. But this is a woman who has not only spent years publicly campaigning for global rights for women and children, but also has experienced the racial discrimination, prejudice and systematic oppression firsthand. Our expectations are high for a reason; we don’t want to see her great activism cease because she is now part of the royal machine.
Their first real test —or opportunity to do so— will be on their upcoming visit to Australia in October for the Invictus Games. Not only is Australia’s Anglo/Indigenous relations history so controversial, complex, widely known and ongoing but our country has been central on the royal map this year with us also having played host to the Commonwealth Games.
If ever there was a country in need of healing between the Indigenous peoples and the Crown and one which has very real political and economic impacts either way, it is Australia.
Whether or not she champions black cultures across the Commonwealth remains to be seen, but either way she has earned her place in history and in her short time thus far as a royal, as a symbol, she has done more for race relations within one of the oldest privileged families than anybody else before her.
While royals are bound by convention to not influence politics directly, they do influence society and exert their power through symbolism. Of course Prince Harry marrying an African American woman was his personal choice rather than a statement, but representation, diversity and inclusion should not be underestimated. It will be very interesting to see how The Duchess of Sussex intends to exert her power in standing up for other black cultures to her own, especially ones in which her new family rule over. Her and her husband could quite easily play a massive role in Australia in bringing forth the voices of Indigenous peoples here and hopefully to bring a touch of balance between old and new, black and white. One such example is in regards to our upcoming referendum on including Indigenous peoples in Australia’s constitution.
Royals —which Meghan now is— are individuals, but they are also public servants in their own way. Almost all peoples of colour across the world have had their run-ins with the British Empire and being the first royal of colour, Meghan Markle has a responsibility to be more than Harry’s wife and to use her new status and the platform it provides her to take on race relations at a whole new level. Whether or not she champions black cultures across the Commonwealth remains to be seen, but either way she has earned her place in history and in her short time thus far as a royal, as a symbol, she has done more for race relations within one of the oldest privileged families than anybody else before her.
With her getting her “HRH” status one thing can be certain, the royal family is changing and will never look the same again. So too is the community of the Commonwealth and it is high time various laws and legislations holding Indigenous peoples back were to play catch-up likewise. I feel confident in Meghan Markle’s intentions to work towards a reality where black lives and the way they live them truly matter and it is with great eagerness we anticipate her introduction to Indigenous Australian cultures in October. I hope she is greeted by the spirits of all our peoples and feels compelled to help tell our stories.
North Queenslander Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal affairs advocate, artist and Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society. He is of the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes.