Markle at her aunt’s marriage. 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 supremacy. To serve popular culture, the female mulatto became a source of social and erotic intrigue, a figure who needed strict narrative policing. Tales , fictions, plays and early films dedicated her two options.
She could be a scheming seductress( ensure Lydia Brown in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation , the mistress of a gullible white abolitionist played by a panting and grimacing 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, seemingly 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 period. But, when the innocent gentleman proposes wedding, 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 lingers and titillates, a handy tool for condescension, suspicion and breezy sneers. A key topic in these stories is the heroine’s terror that, if she marries her white hero, she might bear a child 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 produce a shamefully black offspring.
And surely the Daily Mail was gesturing towards this when it operated a tale about the ostensibly tawdry origins of Markle and her mom, titled:” Harry’s girl is( virtually) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mom uncovered- 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 suddenly made her the equivalent of the mulatta’s disreputable mother, who gathers roots and practises hoodoo.
Early rumours had it that Ragland would walk her daughter down the aisle( with her usual dreads, 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 only 51 years ago, US law forbid 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 assumptions favoured by adults who believe 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 , no 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 create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom. Because in 1865( which is so shatteringly recent ), when slavery was abolished in the United Country, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname, to be exact. Perhaps the closest thing to connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my yearn to know where I comes here, and the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He choice the last name Wisdom. He described 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 say 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 tackle 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 alternatives that previous generations did not.
The speech she gave 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 is said that girls with dreams become women with vision. May we empower each other to carry out this vision, because it isn’t enough to simply talk about 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.