“Racism doesn’t believe in fairy tales,” I wrote months ago when former actress Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex after marrying Prince Harry, complained to Oprah Winfrey about her bitter experiences as a mixed-race woman within the British royal family.
Here we are again, repeating it. Only this time I find myself almost in unison with two narratives that, in very different ways, make us think about the experience of black women, beyond the spicy palace intrigues.
On the one hand, the adventures and misadventures of Meghan Markle return, told by the duke and duchess themselves in the documentary series Harry & Meghan, directed by Liz Garbus and available on Netflix. On the other, The Woman King, an epic film that recreates the feats of the Agodjie, a female regiment formed in the 18th century in the kingdom of Dahomey, famous for its invincibility throughout West Africa.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film does not temper the courage and violence of those also known as the Dahomeyan Amazons, who face and defeat armies of men, black and white, under the command of the fearsome general Nanisca (Viola Davis). It is they who, in The Woman King, ensure the sovereignty of the African kingdom.
For fans of British royal stories, the eight episodes of Harry & Meghan reveal the details of the media harassment, the betrayal of Meghan’s father and half-sister; while she was left to her own devices and even scorned or ignored by her in-laws. It is the great battle to be fought, the one that will hoard the emotions of viewers, because every story of princes and princesses follows more or less the same structure.
In the first chapter, the lovers tell that they met on Instagram; in the last one, they are the parents of two Windsor princelings: a little red-haired boy who runs around the well-kept gardens of Californian mansions and a baby girl with blue eyes — the same as her grandmother Diana’s, Harry assures us. The exemplary family appears at peace, rosy and liberated, in their new life away from the court of the late Elizabeth II.
Fairy tales always have a happy ending, they want us to believe (and many surely do). There are charming princes, inconsolable damsels, very powerful villains; but in the end love triumphs and everyone ends up smiling and healthy, in the midst of spaces as neat and radiant as they are. And that can happen to any girl. You don’t have to be noble or British or white to get it. Nor is it necessary to attend certain parties or coincide in select spaces. It is enough to have an account on Instagram so that the magic can happen. That could be elucidated from the legend of Meghan and Harry. Netflix approves.
In addition, they want it to be clear that the heroes of the miniseries, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have been very brave against the villains: the media, seconded by treacherous relatives in both branches of the family. Meghan affirms through tears that at some point she wanted to die; the perfidy of her enemies was so much. But together and very much in love, courageous and kind, our duke and duchess have emerged victorious. Good always prevails over evil. Let’s believe it!
The docuseries barely complements the interview with Oprah Winfrey from March 2021, also broadcast on Netflix. Even then we were called to feel sorry for the bereaved duchess. When she recounted how the royal family became alarmed by the skin color that the firstborn of the duke and duchess could have. Of course, she was outraged. In my case, it would be that which causes in me every act of racism. But I have not been able to identify with Meghan Markle, who is a duchess and has the support of friends like Oprah Winfrey, who interviews her and almost cries with her, and Tyler Perry, who lends her his property in the exclusive Californian enclave of Montecito.
The racial question is constantly present both in the interview with Oprah and in the Harry & Meghan serial, where the duchess reflects on her persistent attempts to “fit in” within the world of British royalty: “I wanted them to feel proud of me. I wanted to be part of the family,” she admits. But in the attempt, she discovered the terror that is inflicted on certain women, who never “fit in.”
Meghan felt black only when she became a duchess. With a black mother and a white father, the duchess’s skin is fair, her hair is always straightened — she only appears natural as a child and adolescent and in a couple of domestic scenes — and, with the appropriate makeup, her facial features do not denote she is an Afro-descendant.
It is confessed in the documentary that the producers did not recognize her as mixed race, because she looked like a freckled Californian girl who had perhaps sunbathed too much. Meghan says she only once heard that her mother, Doria Ragland, was insulted for being black; while she acknowledges that she should have talked earlier with her daughter about the public attacks that black women commonly receive.
It is one thing to know one is a “minority” — says the duchess — and another to be treated as such. In short, Meghan Markle had not experienced what it means socially to be black — a condition she refers to as a “minority” — until royalty and the British press made her understand it. Tearful, she over and over wonders why.
And I wonder: why not? The racism that met Meghan as she struggled to be included in an institution that has served for centuries as a pillar and symbol of European and exclusively white privilege is an everyday experience for any black woman in the West. But Meghan doesn’t seem to know, Oprah seems to forget, and Netflix tries hard to hide it. Recognizing the extent of structural racism over all aspects of our lives is not on the Montecito agenda. It’s too dangerous.
Until the moment she entered Buckingham Palace on the arm of her blue-blooded prince, Meghan had been a woman of African descent whose intense miscegenation had spared her the experience of racism. It is part of her privilege, to which must be added the one provided by her economic condition.
For her performance in the Suits seriesher performance in the Suits series, she earned 50,000 dollars per episode. Meghan Markle would, according to the story, be found by her future husband at the great Instagram fair, but she was not a poor girl either. The courtship and marriage have considerably increased her fame and capital: the couple has received between 100 and 150 million dollars100 and 150 million dollars in a multi-year production contract with Netflix. Her privilege is always increasing.
For its part, the English monarchy only did what it has always done, maintain its unattainable status of exclusivity by reinforcing its borders. Markle’s privileges weren’t enough to earn her a gilded chair within one of the oldest and most resilient bastions of European aristocracy; the whitest of white, you could say.
But the duchess, insisted: why? Why, even when she did everything in her power to not attract attention, molding her demeanor and appearance, dressing in colors that would not make her stand out in the family photo with her prince? Meghan wanted to blend in, blend in with the family. They didn’t allow it and that caused her frustration.
A cry; the world must rush to help her and, incidentally, contribute with the capital of the duke and duchess, now that they have ceased to be supported by the Crown, since in 2020 they renounced the treatment of royal highness. 100 million.… It’s not easy for me to fully sympathize with the Meghan who moans just because she couldn’t keep her character within a story that excludes her. That story was not hers nor was it invented for her to “fit in”; but, precisely, so that people like her would not even dream of infiltrating.
It’s the difference between a princess and a queen. And I’m not thinking of Elizabeth, but of Nanisca, The Woman King. The queen who dominates her territory, and is therefore mistress of her own narrative: she does not tearfully implore from the margins to be let in. She makes her way in using her muscular body and a sharp machete.
She advances, she decides, she executes. A queen does not seek to fit in, to be accepted, much less to be diluted. Nanisca is not the companion of a monarch who pushes a door for her to enter, even if it is ephemeral, in the forbidden spaces of absolute privilege. The Woman King commands at the same level as a king. Hers is a power held by her and her army of women.
The Woman King is a warrior. And Meghan? Maybe she is, in the way of quavering princesses. Her tears are worth 100 million, which is no small feat. But I don’t think it’s an option to cry for what they don’t give me, because I don’t want to be given anything as a reward for my efforts to blend in with a group that rejects me. A rejection whose threads are interwoven with the kidnapping, dehumanization and commercialization of my African ancestors.
What I want, I fight for. With my power, that I carry inside and only I can exercise.
The Woman King has received many criticisms. Particularly attracting my attention are those that expand on the inaccurate treatment given in the film to the participation of Africans as suppliers of human material to the transatlantic slave trade. Several articles refer to the relevance or not of mentioning such a reality.
As zealous researchers show, The Woman King is not always faithful to the facts that they have brought to light with such dedication and historiographical passion. But, at the same time, I wonder why I have read so little about the effect on black female viewers of the depiction of these powerful women winning battles with the strength of their warrior bodies.
Historians and critics interpret The Woman King as if it had been produced just for them; as if they and people like them were the only possible audience. Or, at least, the public par excellence. Never us black women.
No one thinks of us when thinking of the public. No story is supposed to be conceived for us, not even when written, acted, produced, and directed by black women. We are usually not seen; and that is why, when from the darkest, when least expected, we appear, attack and triumph as the Dahomey Agodjie did in the thickest of the African night, nobody understands, nobody wants to see.
Harry & Meghan is a fairy tale; The Woman King, an epic movie, the story of the warrior.
In the story of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the systemic racism suffered by millions of black women is eclipsed by the contradictory frustration of a mixed-race girl when her dream of total miscegenation was not allowed to come true, the utopian disappearance as if by magic of all differences.
As for The Woman King, it has been the impact that the recreation of the Dahomean warriors could have had on black women that is minimized and concealed, perhaps hoping that one day we will forget and not think that we have stories of powerful and winning black women.
The guardians of academic orthodoxy warn us that we have to watch The Woman King very carefully because the story told is not completely true. As if the lives of the black women had not been manipulated enough by that same history that they strive so hard to keep intact. As if fiction were not essential for the survival of us, the never seen.
I, on the other hand, suggest that we use all the care when consuming fairy tales like Harry & Meghan, that we do not make ourselves invisible seeking to insert ourselves into a world in which weexpected to be warriors, as we are.
Leave a Reply