Harry & Meghan in History

The Duke And Duchess Of Sussex Attend Mountbatten Music Festival
Netflix’s ‘Harry & Meghan’ came out on December 8, 2022. The public response has been decidedly mixed. Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage
Baratunde Thurston
January 22, 2023

For most of my life, I’m proud to say, I successfully avoided caring about the British royal family, but Harry and Meghan have ruined all that. Now I see their experience, their story, our exhaustion with their story, all of it, as an opportunity to usefully blur the line between past and present; to discover uncomfortable connections between various historical dots, and to redraw those connections in new, healthier ways. I know that’s a lot to say about people many of us are tired of hearing about, and who often seem so self-absorbed. And yet I’m still a bit surprised at how much I’ve been drawn in. 

Let me start at the beginning for me. In the late summer of 1997, I was in mourning, and I was in debt. I was heading into my junior year at Harvard. The mourning began earlier that summer when I learned that two of my classmates—young, brilliant Black men—were killed in the same car accident. The loss of any young life is a tragedy. The loss of these young lives was devastating for me, the class of 1999, and particularly our small Black community. The debt began two years earlier when my mother and I both took out loans to pay for this higher educational experience. (In truth, the debt began centuries earlier, with the theft of land and people that, down the line, required loans taken out by both parent and child to further that child’s education, but that’s an essay for another time). 

Picture a young Baratunde—part nerd with his Palm Pilot, part cool kid with his cornrows, part janitor with his mop bucket (paying down that debt required many odd jobs including literally cleaning and prepping campus housing as part of the “Dorm Crew” work-study program). I’m walking through the courtyard of Mather House, a rare Brutalist dorm sitting along the Charles River amongst more traditional Gothic Revival architecture striving to stir some Oxbridge flavor. It was here that one of my closest friends, a Trinidadian woman, broke the news that Princess Diana had died. 

She was clearly devastated. I was definitely not. Of course, as I had recently experienced, the loss of young life is always a tragedy, but this one wasn’t personal for me. When I asked my friend why she cared so much, she explained that it had to do with being born in a Commonwealth nation and her admiration for Diana’s global public service and possibly some other points I’ve since forgotten. And while her explanation made sense, and I watched some of the news coverage, it would be another 20 years, almost to the date, before I spent any meaningful time thinking about British royals.

Fast forward to the late summer of 2017, when my wife and I took her father on a three week tour of England by rail, bus, and foot. It was an atypical vacation for Americans according to every British person we encountered. We visited the Lake District in the north of the country and the far western reaches of Cornwall. The centerpiece of our journey was a stop at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, where American World War II service members are honored, and my father-in-law’s father is recorded on the Walls of the Missing—his plane went down over the North Sea in 1945, and he was never found. While I had emotionally resonant experiences like that, and enjoyed beautiful countryside hikes and too many dollops of clotted cream, the underlying theme of the trip would be my face-to-face experience with the persistent imperial mindset among the British. 

First, there was the absurdly tattooed, recently-released-from-prison, unabashed Nazi on the train. (If you want the long version, read my recollection at the time.) Then there was the Georgian housing tour during which the guide spoke of the wonderful changes sugar brought to England but said nothing of the horrific conditions forced upon unpaid laborers in the Americas who harvested the crop. There was the guy who aggressively stole my place in line, even though I was the only person at the counter, late one night at a curry shop in Penzance. And almost everywhere there was a nonchalant explanation of how this or that uncle murdered this or that young nephew to prevent them from ascending the throne. “And here under this staircase is where Lord so-and-so stuffed the bodies of young so-forth-and-so-on. The coffee shop is on the left…” This was the summer I learned that Game of Thrones is a documentary about the British Empire. 

Meghan’s Mirror

After that trip, I started watching The Crown on Netflix as a way to help me process my experience with these feisty people from this little island. I was disappointed to discover that I was getting invested! Claire Foy’s portrayal of a young, initially reluctant Queen Elizabeth helped. It filled in some gaps, not always with facts, in a way that explained how this royal family transitioned from God-approved ruling authority to publicly-subsidized mascot of a tiny island nation that has had a disproportionate influence on the globe in the centuries since the Magna Carta was drafted. I dug deeper and started watching documentaries about Princess Diana. Then I heard about When Harry Met Meghan, a podcast devoted to the upcoming royal wedding, and I definitely listened to more than one episode. 

On the big day, my wife and I were vacationing in Tulum. We were so determined to witness this other interracial couple tie the knot on a global stage that we got up around 6 a.m. to watch the creation of a Black princess live. It was exciting! Seeing all that whiteness seemingly accept Meghan’s Blackness in the form of her, her mother, and that unforgettable gospel choir felt good. Meghan, it seemed, was a hit! A mixed race, Black child of the long-ago British Empire had come to King’s Landing to extend the monarchy’s relevance.

As we all know now, the story was too good to be true. The British tabloids tore her apart, reprising their treatment of Diana but with the addition of racism. The royal family failed to defend her. Harry and Meghan complained, fought back, and eventually fled to California. During this time, there were countless magazine pieces and interviews with people like Oprah, and my impression was that these two just wouldn’t shut up about their family drama. I was particularly disenchanted with Meghan, who seemed genuinely shocked that British people, the same people who colonized, brutalized, and enslaved so many peoples of the global majority, could be racist. So I hesitated before pressing play on the Sussexes’ Netflix series. I expected to hate it. But I was wrong. 

It turns out, I had mistaken hearing about them with hearing from them. Their documentary-slash-propaganda series finally gave me something that came directly from the source. Meghan’s naivete was at last explained by the fact that she hadn’t grown up with a particularly Black experience due to her skin tone and isolation from any concentrated Black community. In a way, marrying into the British royal family was the Blackest thing she’d ever done. It put her in a world where the racial contrast was heightened, and as a result, she was perceived as foreign, inferior, and Other. She was a Black woman who didn’t have to identify as Black until she threw herself into one of the whitest institutions on the planet. For my book, How To Be Black, I often started interviews with some twist on the question: “When did you first realize you were Black?” If I wrote that book today and interviewed Meghan, she might say it’s when she married Harry. 

Sometimes the way we cope with a partner’s negative experience is by refusing to see it, either consciously or unconsciously, or by trying to minimize it. This is not the path Harry has chosen. Meghan’s man showed up and stood up for her. He saw the best of his mother in Meghan—and the worst of his country in how it treated both women. I admire his willingness to confront the ugliest parts of his family, his nation, and himself, and to take steps to interrupt some painful historical patterns, whether that has to do with racism, sexism, colonialism, media exploitation, or his own trauma over his mother’s death. So, I’ve started reading his memoir, Spare, and I can’t put it down. It captivated me from the very first line with a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”

Colonial Kindred

In short, Harry’s reckoning has moved me. But I don’t think he would have embarked on this journey were it not for Meghan, and their story reminds me of another I’ve been tuning into lately. 

Kindred, the FX television series, tells the story of a modern-day Black American woman suddenly dragged into a much more racist and abusive past—a Maryland slave plantation in the year 1815. (Mild spoiler alert in the next few sentences but not enough to ruin the experience of watching). At first, she time-travels alone. Then she accidentally drags a white man back with her. He can barely stomach the horror. The next time, though, he chooses to accompany her of his own free will. He recognizes he can help her, but also that the journey might help with his own healing. This elegantly disorienting show was originally written as a novel by the incomparable and prescient science-fiction author Octavia Butler. Black women have birthed or nursed so much of our world into being, and Octavia Butler has done this time and again with her work (her Parable series is exceptional).

The parallels between Kindred and Meghan & Harry are striking to me. Meghan was essentially dragged back in time when she joined this outdated institution upheld by dubious claims to divine rights based on a centuries-old, arbitrary bloodline. The British royal family is funded both historically and presently (if indirectly) by exploitation of the material and human riches of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. When she joined that family, Meghan lost her identity and much of her freedom, and was shocked and horrified to experience a racist and sexist rejection of her humanity (see: anything Piers Morgan has said about her). And while Harry was initially dragged along for the ride, he eventually started to see the world through Meghan’s eyes. What he saw horrified him, and because he is unfailingly committed to her, he too was treated as foreign and Other. Together, they’ve attempted to craft a new, combined story to make sense of their past while sidestepping the most grievous historical tragedies and mistakes.

It’s possible that my emotional investment in royal family intrigue will soon come to an end—I don’t need to experience all the Sussexes’ future media projects if they remain focused on promoting their version of events in the family drama. But I doubt very much that they will need to do much more than they already have in this area. I’m grateful to them both for realizing that the past is also their present, and for choosing not to stay stuck, instead using that knowledge as an impetus to finally break free from toxic historical patterns.