The Other Empire Strikes Back
A little-known American tradition was evident in the backstory of Meghan Markle’s remarkable interview with Oprah Winfrey last Sunday that few recognize today. Unbeknownst to most, there exists a tradition of Black Victorians in America, the sophisticated middle-class African Americans who assimilated the tastes and manners of upper-class life in Britain, especially its aesthetic codes, as a form of armor against racism in America.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men and women like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain LeRoy Locke adopted the dress, manners, and cultural knowledge of England, and by doing so set themselves apart not only from other Black people, but most white Americans of their time.
But there was a rub. As Meghan Markle found out, many Black Victorians discovered that mastery of social codes, manners, and cultural sophistication did not really let you in – not in England.
When Locke went to England as the first Black Rhodes Scholar to Oxford in 1907, he was easily the most Victorian of Americans on the boat over. But when he arrived, the Rhodes Scholars from the American South and the British Rhodes Trust lobbied to exclude him from the Thanksgiving dinner held for the Americans at Oxford. The snub wounded him deeply.
The next year, when Locke was invited to a luncheon with the American ambassador Whitelaw Reid and his wife at their London residence, and accepted, the head of Rhodes House at Oxford visited Locke in his room and asked him to withdraw his acceptance of the invitation. Locke refused. Subsequently, an elaborate schematic of the table was created by the Rhodes Trust to seat the Southerners as far away from Locke as possible when the luncheon took place. Locke only hinted at how he felt at the time.
“After the Rhodes luncheon I simply went to see Seme (Isaka Seme, his Black South African friend at Oxford) – had dinner with him and left the very next day for Paris.”
Recall from the Markle interview her refrain that as a new member of the British Royal family she was unnerved by the lack of “protection.” That word carries a lot of meaning, for the assumption behind Black Victorian mastery of middle-class codes of behavior is that you will be protected, not just from violence, but also from discursive assault by the media, because you are in.
But you’re never in, you’re just tolerated. Once that message sets in, one’s mental health is often compromised. In Locke’s case, he lost his way academically, fled England whenever possible, and eventually left Oxford penniless, without a degree.
In Markle’s case, her natural sunny disposition disappeared, her confidence eroded, and thoughts of suicide invaded her daily consciousness. Unlike Locke, she couldn’t escape – one of the most telling comments she made is “people don’t understand. They take your passport, your driver’s license, everything.” She was physically trapped, a key element in almost all systems of cruelty, as the late philosopher Philip P. Hallie explained.
In addition to the racial regime that Meghan witnessed was the gendered nature of the system, the particular way that women who are supposed to serve the monarchy are trapped physically and emotionally, a system that Harry rightly saw operative in the case of his mother and now being replicated with his wife. But Meghan had access to something as a latter day Black Victorian that Diana didn’t.
Another empire saved Meghan’s life. When the British royalty cut off Harry, Meghan, and their mixed-race son Archie from financial support and protection during the pandemic – think about that for a second … during the pandemic – it was a Black filmmaker who came to their rescue and provided a home and protection.
Tyler Perry made a fortune from movies that explored the stories of everyday Black people, and especially Black women, who did not assimilate Victorian codes of behavior, but instead live their lives in unapologetically Black ways. That is the vibrant Black culture of America that fosters the blues, jazz, dance, and storefront churches. Perry established his film empire outside the orbit of Hollywood. That he built his studios in Atlanta, not Hollywood, tells you all you need to know about Black cultural self-determination at its highest level. He had the resources to allow the Black Royals to stay at one of his homes in Los Angeles, until the British press hounding them drove them to purchase a compound in Montecito.
That brings us to Oprah, the icon of American media success, who has become the impresario of a Black media empire without peer. Her ascent as everyone knows came through plumbing the psychic needs of White Americans, especially women, on her daytime talk show, where a kind of catharsis of 20th century American womanhood played out on a daily basis.
Oprah represents a different tradition of assimilation, a democratic womanhood that reads books, buys American consumer goods like crazy, and judges unequivocally what’s right and wrong in the world. Oprah epitomizes the kind of professional mobility that the shuttered Markle could only envy from behind the closed doors of those English castles.
The other empire that Black media success has built in America was on display in that interview – the setting, the lawn, the patio, which reputedly belongs to a neighbor of Oprah – put the Black media empire that saved a prince and a princess on display as a backdrop. Even Harry was part of the background to what was really taking place. Because center stage were two American Black women talking about what had been done to a sophisticated, cultured one of them. Calling out that cruelty was the Black media empire striking back against the old Empire, the Empire stumbling through Brexit, et al.
What the Firm (the Royal family’s term since King George VI for its corporate personality) did not understand was the power of a Black media empire in which the Black woman is central as powerbroker and storyline. It’s no accident that Tyler Perry’s most successful franchise is about an unapologetic Black woman who cannot be dominated by others. Maybe the royals should have watched the Madea movies before they started harassing Meghan.
Perhaps they would have glimpsed that beneath the sophistication and Black elegance she brought to them was an invisible empire of Black female agency and resilience that would rise Phoenix–like from the ashes of her experience in England to clap back against their abuse in ways a thousand times more damaging to their “brand” than anything they had done to hers.