Markle at her aunt’s bridal. Photograph: Mail on Sunday/ Solo Syndication
But if she never wears her version of a natural, she has already done race history a real service. She has helped scuttle false, foolish constructs of” the mulatto” that were developed a few centuries ago to counter the very real threat that mixed-race people posed to the constructs of white domination. To serve popular culture, the female mulatto became a source of social and erotic intrigue, a figure who needed strict narrative policing. Tales , novels, plays and early movies dedicated her two options.
She could be a scheming seductress( insure Lydia Brown in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation , the mistress of a gullible white abolitionist played by a panting and wincing white actress ). Or she could be tragic( as in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon of 1859, and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars of 1900 ), a beautiful, apparently white girl of faultlessly refined bearing, doomed by the taint of black ancestry. The tragic version attracts the love of a well-born young white man who does not know her secret. She tries- she hopes, she longs- to pass for white, and the ruse works for a day. But, when the innocent gentleman proposes matrimony, the plot dictates that her dishonor be disclosed and she must die, by her own hand or from a fatal disease.
Decades of scholarship and memoir have corrected and complicated this narrative, of course. Still it persists and titillates, a handy tool for condescension, suspicion and breezy sneers. A key topic in these narratives is the heroine’s terror that, if she weds her white hero, she might bear small children whose skin colour would disclose the dreaded racial truth. I imagine there’s plenty of spiteful, behind-the-scenes chatter about whether this” touch of the tarbrush” will taint Meghan and Harry’s offspring. Perhaps the “blackamoor” brooch that Princess Michael of Kent was photographed wearing on her way to a royal event with Harry and Meghan was meant to signify such a dread: Meghan as the black ewe tupped by a white ram, who will render a shamefully black offspring.
And surely the Daily Mail was gesturing towards this when it operated a narrative about the ostensibly tawdry origins of Markle and her mom, titled:” Harry’s girl is( almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mom revealed- so will he be falling by for tea ?” Doria Ragland was cast as” a dreadlocked African American lady from the wrong side of the ways “. One whose career as a yoga instructor and social worker abruptly attained her the equivalent of the mulatta’s disreputable mother, who collects roots and practises hoodoo.
Early gossips had it that Ragland would walk her daughter down the aisle( with her usual dreadeds, I hoped ). Now it’s reported that Markle’s father will, or that they will share the duty. I vote for Ragland alone. Still, to watch a divorced, interracial couple walk the royal red carpet has its own rewards when, once upon a time simply 51 years ago, US law forbade their marriage.
In 2015 Markle wrote an essay for Elle in which she quite eloquently established that she is both biracial and black. She started with the blunt racial slurs of her childhood, which turned, as she grew, into the patronising queries and premises favoured by adults who think themselves liberal. A perfect example was the teacher who told her to fill in “white” on a census because” that’s how you appear, Meghan “. Intended as a compliment , without doubt. In the essay, she also discussed the institutional racism exposed by the police shootings in Ferguson and Baltimore. She recalled the flurry of racist tweets set off when Wendell Pierce was cast as her African American father on Suits :” Ew, she’s black? I used to think she was hot .” Then, having described both her battles with, and her pride in, being biracial, she ended the essay with a tribute to her black ancestry.
” You make the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their liberty. Because in 1865( which is so shatteringly recent ), when bondage was abolished in the United States, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname, to be exact. Perhaps a very close thing to connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my yearning to know where I come from, and the commonality that connects me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He opted the last name Wisdom. He drew his own box .” Excellently done, I believed. She’s refusing to let white readers white out her black identity.
When it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality and class, how much can Meghan Markle tell and do? How much does she want to say and do? We simply don’t know yet. Like any black and biracial woman, she has had a lifetime of learning to both confront and dextrously navigate codes that range from the puzzling to the vehemently punitive. Like every actress she’s had to confront misogyny. But she has options that previous generations did not.
The speech she devoted at the 2015 UN women’s conference began in rousing, declamatory mode:” I am proud to be a woman and a feminist “; moved to personal narrative( this part grounded in the story of how she organised her campaign against that sexist television ad at age 11 ); then built up to inspirational political exhortation.” It tell us that girls with dreams become women with vision. May we empower one another to carry out this vision, because it isn’t enough to simply talking here equality, one must believe in it, and it isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work for it .” May the work recommence once the PS32m wedding is done.
* On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson is published by Granta.