Clockwise: Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, the Kingdom Choir, Doria Ragland, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Center: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Screenshots/YouTube
It was when I heard the mostly-black Kingdom Choir sing “Amen” and “This Little Light of Mine” as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left Windsor’s St. George’s Chapel that my shock finally hit.
“Am…Am I hearing what my ears are telling me I’m hearing?” I thought to myself. I expected to hear the choir sing during the wedding, which they did–their heartfelt rendition of “Stand By Me” was the best I’d heard since the original Ben E. King version. But I wasn’t expecting the highly southern songs like “Amen” and “This Little Light of Mine” to get sung as Harry and Meghan greeted the public for the first time as husband and wife. Personally, I felt like they were getting married right here in my neck of the woods.
In actuality, the wedding itself wasn’t that revolutionary. It wasn’t that revolutionary, that is, if we put it in the context of the type of wedding Markle was drawing from–a standard, classy, African-American church wedding. Weddings like this happen all the time across the U.S. To be fair, I’m sure this style of wedding isn’t uncommon in England either. But for sure, Markle’s inspiration was quintessential African-American pomp. For her, me, her mother, and the myriad of African-American viewers watching around the globe, a wedding featuring a grooving choir and a slightly bombastic preacher are just some of the default things to have.
But for a wedding featuring the British Royal Family, a “normal” wedding became a small revolution of its own. It was, of course, a revolution filled with culture shock. As the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American preacher to hold the title, preached enthusiastically about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the power of love, and an historical allegory of fire as the physical embodiment of love’s cleansing blaze, you could tell who understood the cultural cues and who didn’t. Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, nodded in agreement, studiously listening to the bishop like many black mothers (including my own) do when taking in the pastor’s words. Markle herself sat engrossed in the Curry’s message, listening in a similar way to her mother, but also seemed like she was schooling herself to stay focused on Curry and not look over to other royals sitting further down from Ragland, who either tittered about in their seats, slightly uncomfortable, or made the error of allowing that discomfort to show in their faces for the cameras to see. Harry, for his part, seemed just as focused as Markle was.
That culture shock comes from the amount of emotion Curry poured into his sermon–as we saw from William and Catherine’s marriage, an outpouring of emotion is usually off the table for royalty. But the shock can’t be discussed without mentioning the racial element. Markle boldly injected her heritage into an event that, if we were in another time, probably even just a few years ago, she might have been asked to conform to what the royals might deem as “propriety.” Instead, Queen Elizabeth gave her blessing not just to Markle joining the family, but to every part of the wedding, including Curry, the Kingdom Choir, and the inclusion of the magnificent cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who wowed everyone with his talents.
The wedding was about Markle’s personal ancestry, to be sure, but it was also a representation of the richness of African-American culture and the African diaspora as well; the Kingdom Choir might draw from the African-American choral tradition, but they are based in London and have not only performed with Elton John (who was a guest at the wedding) and African-American gospel stars Donnie McClurkin and Fred Hammond, but they also performed at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Kanneh-Mason, who is just one member of a talented musical family and the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician Award, has family from both Sierra Leone and Antigua (and there’s another Elton John connection–Kanneh-Mason’s oldest sister Isata was also a BBC Young Musician finalist and had her piano scholarship with the Royal Academy of Music paid for by John, and she’s also performed with him). Before becoming the head of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Curry was the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina and is the descendant of slaves and sharecroppers from Alabama and North Carolina.
Don’t misunderstand me, none of this is about lauding white acceptance. Just on a historical point, African-Americans and Africans across the diaspora owe no loyalty to the Crown. The British Monarchy has its long history of enslavement, corruption, and the erosion of other society’s cultures and customs. It has a complex stranglehold on popular culture even today that must be understood and dealt with. But what if Markle’s marriage is part of that cleansing fire Curry discussed? What if the way to start righting even a small portion of the wrongs the British Monarchy has done is by having a powerful force on the inside? What if Markle is that force that helps bring the Monarchy into a new age?
A lot of people seem to think she could be the start of the next chapter of the Monarchy, an institution that now reflects the reality of society thanks to her inclusion. But even that observation could inadvertently put too much weight on the event at hand, and on Markle herself. She is just one woman, after all. Even though she will be made out to be a representation of black America, she shouldn’t have to carry the weight of black America–or in her case as the Duchess of Sussex, the entire black diaspora–on her shoulders. Besides, at the root of everything, this was a family occasion, a moment when beloved grandparents and widowed father saw their youngest boy get married to the girl he loves. At the end of the day, it was just a church wedding.
But, because Markle decided to have a “simple” African-American church wedding, a wedding that is normal for so many of us, she has changed the British Monarchy in both overt and subtle ways. Keep in mind, though, that she’s not the first royal to have African ancestry; Queen Charlotte is one of at least three who hold that title (it is rumored that Phillippa of Hainault and Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince, are of African ancestry as well). In any event, Markle is bound to keep changing the Monarchy the more comfortable she gets in her role as Duchess, and what will be the most interesting thing to see is how she navigates her role not only as an American, but as a biracial African-American woman who is adding a shot of much-needed modernism to the royal family. ♦