The Royal Baby and Blackness as a Badge of Honor
Whether he “looks” black or not, I’ll be glad to claim him.
By Lizzie Skurnick
Ms. Skurnick is a writer.
- May 7, 2019
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, center, with her mother and Prince Harry in 2018.CreditPool photo by Ben Stansall
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, center, with her mother and Prince Harry in 2018.CreditCreditPool photo by Ben Stansall
Usually, when discussing the latest addition to a royal line, the baby’s sex is paramount, then its name, and then, as far as physical characteristics go, general cuteness. Now we know that the baby whom Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, gave birth to yesterday is a boy and that he’ll have a name that unites Britain and the United States. I’m pretty sure he’s cute.
But none of that is what I have been focused on amid the royal baby fever. I can’t help but wonder: Will he have kinky hair?
This isn’t some serious search for genetic signifiers, of course. People who identify as black come in every shade and with every hair texture. But if his identity is anything like mine, he’ll consider anything that signals this heritage to the world a badge of honor. And there’s no question that his physical appearance will also shape how he’s seen.
Not long after Meghan, whose mother is black and whose father is white, entered the public eye, some of us have been searching for photographic evidence of what her hair looks like in its natural state. Her perennial coif, with its photogenic wisps and subtle shine, obviously straightened with the generous application of heat, is the picture of elegant nonchalance. But her hair texture is probably similar to mine, and I know how long that takes to do that every day.
It’s not surprising that she keeps it straight. After all, black women — and black men, too — can get fired for having natural hair. The 11th Circuit Court in the United States just ruled against Chastity Jones, who lost her job when Human Resources decided her dreadlocks were a “grooming” issue. In schools, dreadlocks, braids, head wraps and even volume can be deemed “inappropriate” for girls as well as boys.
The antipathy toward black hair in Britain stretches back to the Victorian era, when it was vividly depicted in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel “Vanity Fair.” Miss Swartz, a “rich, woolly-haired mulatto,” is obviously not marriage material, though one father jokes that her money almost makes it worth it: “I ain’t particular about a shade or two of tawny,” he says.
Thackeray was depicting an upper-class society whose wealth was founded entirely on colonizing those unfortunate tawny folks. And you would think, given these downsides, that black people wouldn’t exactly flaunt our race’s telltale signs, especially those that have been mocked and derided: kinky hair, full lips, thick thighs, broad noses, those pesky shades of tawny.
But we do — and some of us with biracial heritage avidly, enthusiastically search them out. My skin is very fair, but I am contented by my bushy hair and hips. One friend of mine was relieved when a genetic test put him over the quarter line for blackness. I was shattered to find myself at a paltry 22.5 percent, until I reminded myself that my “officially black” mother had not even crossed the 50 percent threshold herself.
We can also be amused by how white people seem unable to tell that people who are obviously black are indeed black. The internet is littered with “10 Celebs You Didn’t Know Were Black!” lists. (I admit, Pete Wentz slipped by me.) How could a friend think Rashida Jones was white? How could anyone think Bob Barr, the former Republican congressman from Georgia, is white — including Mr. Barr himself? (Google “Bob Barr black” if you want to go down that particular rabbit hole.) You won’t need a list to know about Baby Sussex’s background — Meghan has been splashed across tabloids for more than a year now — but who knows what you’d think if you just walked past him at the polo club.
The variety of black people is not, of course, some intrinsic creativity in our D.N.A. It was largely foisted on American blacks by slavery, only more recently occurring as a result of choice. When my parents got married, whites marrying blacks was illegal. Marriage had not been the purpose of interracial coupling. Instead, white slave owners used black women to create their own work force — like Thomas Jefferson, who had his own sons serve at the table and freed them only upon his death.
Meghan has always celebrated all sides of her background, and she has taken that with her into her new royal role: It was she who had the idea of embroidering her veil with all the nations of the Commonwealth and who wanted to bring the black church unapologetically into her wedding to Prince Harry last year. She understands that you do not defeat racism by ignoring race but by acknowledging it, embracing it, accepting it — and giving your new family the charge to accept it, too.
People, generally white ones, always think the answer to things like racism is to do away with race — to, as the saying goes, never see color. But no one tells women to start becoming men to defeat sexism. I’m proud of my black heritage. I would never give it up. What black people, and all tawny peoples, would like is for people to stop being racist.
So, whether the new royal baby bears the telltale marks of crinkly hair, dark skin, full lips or any of the signs we purport to see, I will be thrilled to claim him and celebrate him. Windsor Palace, get ready. One day you might even have locs.