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The Meaning Of Meghan: 'Black' And 'Royal' No Longer An Oxymoron In Britain

The first black British royal? Not so fast.
Matt Dunham
The first black British royal? Not so fast.

"England's First Black Princess!" lots of media blared a variety of that this week, immediately after the official announcement of what several tabloids have been speculating about for months: Prince Harry, brother of Prince William, son of Charles and Diana, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, is engaged. His intended, Meghan Markle, is American, divorced, three years older than the prince — and biracial. Which has led to a lot of breathless reporting that she is the first black member of the royal family.

Um ... maybe not. Harry's several-times great grandmother, Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, may actually have been the first black royal. Although she was born in Germany, Charlotte's family tree includes a sturdy branch from Portugal's black royal family. Her ancestral grandmother is said to have descended from Alfonso III (who ruled Portugal in the Middle Ages) and his beloved, Madragana, who was reported to be a black Moor.

A Black Queen for England?

Charlotte's African heritage is obvious to many visitors at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., where a large, full-length portrait of the queen by Scottish painter Allan Ramsay is on permanent display. The work was commissioned to commemorate Charlotte's coronation after her marriage to George III (yes, he's THAT George III). Draped in silk and rich brocade, swathed in an ermine-lined velvet cape, Ramsay's Charlotte has pale skin and the broad nose and full lips that many consider classically black. Ramsay made several portraits of Charlotte over the years; he was famous for not idealizing his subjects, unlike, say, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, who also painted the Queen. In non-Ramsay portraits, her nose usually was slimmed, her lips thinned. (Charlotte's personal physician described her as having "a true mulatto face.")

The first time I saw the portrait, I did a double-take. "Wow — she's black! Why did I not know this?" I must have murmured it aloud, because a little lady next to me, also studying the painting, said, "No, dear, she's German. See?" And pointed to the description on the plaque next to the picture. Eye of the beholder, madam. Charlotte looks like a whole bunch of black folks I know.

Mario de Valdes y Cocom, an independent historian/researcher at PBS, has spent much of his career studying people of the African diaspora and their connections to Europe and the Americas. Valdes thinks it's perfectly plausible that Charlotte had black ancestors, given her myriad connections to the Portuguese royal family. Frontline devoted a segment to it. Other historians dismiss his claim as far-fetched. The London Sunday Times published an investigative piece in 1999 called "Revealed: The Queen's Black Ancestors." It caused quite a stir. At the time, the Boston Globe called Buckingham Palace to inquire further and was told, in essence, no biggie. "This has been rumored for years and years," palace spokesman David Buck told the newspaper. "It's a matter of history, and frankly, we've got more important things to talk about."

A "really big step forward" for mixed race people — or, nah?

Maybe folks will get tired of dissecting Charlotte's ethnic makeup (lucky for her, she existed well before social media), but don't expect people to not be interested in the current almost-royal. The media — especially the British media — cannot mention Meghan Markle without pointing out that she's mixed-race.

Whether or not she cares, Markle has become a symbol of biracial people's coming-of-age, and maybe of the country's collective adulthood on race. The BBC's Amal Fashanu (who is also biracial) said, "For people who are mixed-race, I think that this is really a big step forward."

Black Twitter has blown up, mostly welcoming Markle to the fam, sometimes with hysterically cheeky memes, sometimes celebrating Black Girl Magic. And sometimes being chastised for even noticing.

This royal engagement is something lots of people will have an opinion about. Might as well mix yourself a Pimm's and settle into a comfy chair; it's going to be a minute before people get tired of discussing it. But you have to admit, when ethno-nationalism is having its day again — both here and across the pond — it's a relief to focus on a news story for once where race is a happy element. Cheers, y'all.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.