The intimacy of motherhood shapes our idea of nationhood. When the black poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote, “my mother was my first country; the first place I ever lived” in 2013, she seemed to be talking particularly to Meghan Markle, who quoted these lines from the poem “lands” on her first Mother’s Day.
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Paying tribute to all mothers today – past, present, mothers-to-be, and those lost but forever remembered. We honor and celebrate each and every one of you. Today is Mother’s Day in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Japan, and several countries across Europe. This is the first Mother’s Day for The Duchess of Sussex. Quote from “lands” by @nayyirah.waheed: my mother was my first country; the first place i ever lived. Photo © SussexRoyal
There is a lot to unpack in these twelve words. At first glance, “my mother was my first country; the first place I ever lived” offer us a timeless, universal image of motherhood as comfort. Look closer, however, and Waheed’s work takes on a more complex meaning—one where motherhood and politics are inextricable.
Waheed’s poem tells a profound story of Black motherhood, even though these lines do not mention Blackness directly. And Blackness’s invisibility is part of the point because whiteness is unmarked, always masquerading as neutral. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams, the editors of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, explain: “the word ‘white,’ which dominates, calls itself by no name, no color, so much so that ‘mothering’ can be code for ‘white mothering.’” This racial encoding of motherhood did not happen overnight. Recent responses to Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor’s mixed race were shaped during the Restoration—the period following King Charles II’s return to the English throne in 1660. By now, those reactions are entirely predictable. Although many contemporary commentators do not seem aware of this context, Meghan Markle has let us know that she definitely is. And she is prepared to engage directly with it.
Motherhood is central to Black women’s experiences of oppression, from attacks on “welfare queens” to the suppression of reproductive justice that particularly targets poor women of color; from rape and family separation to child trafficking in slavery; from a traumatic history of experimentation on enslaved women to forced sterilization to our current maternal-mortality crisis. Predictably, Meghan Markle’s pregnancy and new motherhood have been scrutinized in a racist way. CNN asked in a now-edited headline: “how black will the royal baby be?” The LA Times followed suit: “Will Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Raise their Baby to Be Black?” Most glaringly, the BBC fired a radio host for tweeting a racist image of a chimpanzee in a suit captioned: “royal baby leaves hospital.”
This unease over Archie Harrison’s mixed-race status reveals a deep-seated belief that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interracial marriage remains suspect. In White: Essays on Race and Culture, Richard Dyer gives an account of whiteness as a form of power that can be wielded by reproduction. He writes: “Inter-racial heterosexuality threatens the power of whiteness because it breaks the legitimization of whiteness with reference to the white body … if white bodies are no longer indubitably white bodies, if they can no longer guarantee their own reproduction as white, then the ‘natural’ basis of their dominion is no longer credible.” In other words, an interracial union embodies a fear of irreversible change; white hope promises racial purity, and interracial marriage disrupts this fantasy.
Although the obsession over Markle’s race is specific to our current moment, it also resonates with the excessive scrutiny applied to foreign queens in earlier historical periods. For example, some critics’ discussions of the royal marriage in 2018 invoked the African ancestry of Queen Charlotte, the Portuguese consort of George III. But this history of racial examination reaches back further. The public conversation surrounding Meghan Markle’s Black motherhood also invokes the optics of royal marriage and succession that were prominent during a charged moment in English history: the restoration of the Stuart monarchy after such cataclysmic events as the Civil War between the royalists and the Puritans, the execution of King Charles I, and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. This tumultuous period in English history not only raised fundamental questions about sovereignty, matrimony, and power, but also, and more importantly, positioned the queen’s reproductive body at the center of competing ideologies between absolute monarchy and republican ideals.
In 1662, The Portuguese and Catholic Catherine of Braganza, queen consort to Charles II, came to England. Her marriage to Charles II prompted the composition of conventional poems, called wedding panegyrics, praising the new queen’s genealogy, conduct, and virtue. But this wave of encomium was laced with the vocabulary of race and racial cleansing as well as anxieties about the Portuguese queen’s genealogical connections to Africa. My provocation here is that attending to associations between nationality, wealth, appearance, and conduct in racialized descriptions of foreign queens from English history, like Catherine of Braganza, enables us to better understand how the world encounters Meghan Markle in Brexit Britain today.
Far from being racially or religiously monolithic, the Iberian Peninsula, like other European societies, boasted a diverse African, Muslim, and Jewish diaspora in its demographic makeup when Catherine arrived in England. In Staging Habla de Negros, Nicholas R. Jones has shown that Black sub-Saharan Africans, some enslaved and others free, lived and traded in Portugal and Spain following the Islamic conquest of Al-Andalus in the medieval period. This black enmeshment in the warp and weft of Iberian society problematizes representations of the region’s racial purity. As Barbara Fuchs explains, Iberia became “a space marked by Moorishness … considered somehow beyond Europe.” It is in this context that Catherine of Braganza’s whiteness took center stage in poems from the period that praised her national origins.
Consider, for example, Speeches spoken to the King and Queen, Duke and Duchesse of York (1663), a high-flown panegyric celebrating the royal marriage, delivered on the occasion of a royal visit to Oxford. In it, readers encounter a racialized rhetoric of whiteness. At first, the speaker marks Catherine’s superiority almost entirely and exclusively along racial lines. Despite the excessively sensual “perfumes that the East blew to her mother’s bed,” Catherine was born
…wrapped in lilies, which so grew
A Coverture over [her] own whiter hue,
A Whiteness not with safety to be seen,
Which of a skin of Lilies makes a screen,
Wherein arrayed [she] suffer[s] a disguise,
And put on Snow in mercy to our eyes.
Whiteness, white, whiter, lilies, ivory, milky. The words crop up again and again as the speaker weaves a figurative pattern that reassures his audience that the queen has been made white enough for England. In her pioneering study Things of Darkness, Kim F. Hall persuasively argued that poetic descriptions of “fair” or “white” in early modern literature naturalized a nascent white supremacist ideology. Here, in this poem, Catherine is white in such a way that her status derives from her ancestors’ act of excision—of purging non-white others—or “mak[ing] Devils flie, or at least Moors: /Of Darkness, banished by a general chase.” She is white in such a way that, through incorporation, Portugal’s colonial conquests become England’s as well: “in you /Charles would be Master of the Indies too.” She is white in such an all-consuming way that England’s white hope is energized, because Catherine of Braganza will “beautifie this long-obscured Crown.”
This poem’s insistence on the Iberian queen’s racial superiority is indicative of the intense anxiety generated by the contradiction of dynastic marriage—that is, the inevitability of racial mixing for the survival of a state whose existence depends on a fantasy of racial purity. In this period of settler colonial expansion, human difference was imagined through the language of lineage, religion, and nation, predating the emergence of race science as a “fixed” category in the nineteenth century. For this reason, the poem’s white hope rests on “the promise of [the royal couple’s] Heirs” that derives from Portugal’s main conquistadorial legacies: the expulsion of the Moors and colonization of the New World. In other words, through Portugal’s acts of violence, Catherine of Braganza, by virtue of her lineage, will ensure the propagation of white hope without any residual fear of racial mixing.
Because reproduction was by far a queen consort’s most important role, Catherine of Braganza’s ultimate failure to produce an heir relegated her to the dustbin of history. But, at the same time, the idea of a non-white racial royal progeny was a source of clear anxiety to the poem’s author and readers. A telling example is this account from the period’s most famous diarist, Samuel Pepys. A few weeks after her visit to Oxford, the queen fell severely ill and experienced a hallucinatory episode, speaking of the children she imagined she had delivered. Pepys writes:
[T]his morning [Queen Catherine] talked mightily that she was brought to bed, [..] and that she was troubled that her boy was but an ugly boy. But the King being by, said, “No, it is a very pretty boy;” “Nay, says she, “if it be like you, it is a fine boy endeed, and would be very well pleased with it.”
In recording the queen’s sickbed delusions, Pepys tellingly reflects on the anxiety over Catherine’s racialized progeny—an “ugly boy”—should the hallucinated child inherit her looks. This traveling trope of the “ugly” progeny shaped many of the ways that the world encounters foreign royal women today, and it is hard not to read this dramatic episode surrounding Catherine of Braganza’s reproductive body alongside the insidious envisaging of Meghan Markle’s baby as a chimpanzee. More poignantly, the fixation on a royal progeny’s mixed lineage in longer historical contexts plays out in the sensationalism surrounding Prince Archie’s hair color in the present moment. Even though two of Prince Will and Duchess Kate’s three children also wore caps in their first photos outside the Lindo Wing of London’s St Mary’s Hospital, racist tweets circulating after the birth speculated that Archie wore a cap in the photos because the royal family wanted to hide his black, curly hair—as though Meghan Markle would have been ashamed of her “ugly boy,” like Catherine of Braganza before her. In this context, Meghan Markle’s representation of motherhood is most certainly a political statement. She fully embraces a feminist praxis that perceives the private as political, and she is aware that historically, royal consorts exercised power from their positions as wives and mothers.
In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the queen consort’s curtailed agency was primarily seen through propagation of the royal line, patronage, piety, and intercession or mediation. Sonja Drimmer has observed how the women in the Trump circle are particularly in tune with this medieval trope of queenly mediation. Even though they are not royalty, Melania and Ivanka Trump have repeatedly pled on behalf of the people to soften the president’s otherwise draconic policies; their efficacy has waned. Most recently, Ivanka Trump’s crie de coeur to persuade her father from withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement went unheeded.
Diametrically opposed to this compensatory version of female agency that Ivanka and Melania Trump personify, Meghan Markle seems to be coming more and more into her power by invoking her experience as a black daughter and mother through subtle actions. “Matrilineage” and “resistance” are not words typically used in association with the British monarchy, yet Markle tells us that the political dimensions of Black motherhood are on her mind. Her invocation of Nayyirah Waheed’s poem is a form of what philosopher Sara Ahmed dubs “feminist memory.” As an “acknowledgment of debt,” feminist memory is “how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way.” Where the Trump women aid and abet the patriarchy, Markle lets us know she is aware of attempts to dehumanize her and her son, and she is prepared to challenge them head on.
One might argue, as I have done elsewhere, that the English monarchy is so enmeshed in a history of white supremacy that it actually does not make a difference that a black woman is included in it. However, by quoting a political black poet or refusing to meet with Donald Trump who allegedly called her “nasty,” for example, Meghan Markle appears to be consciously resisting our authoritarian political moment. This becomes clearer when we consider that the Women’s March shared this same quote from Waheed widely on Arab Mother’s Day two years prior. The Women’s March movement, created in direct opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump, ignited the refusal of a generation of American and international women to accept hegemonic patriarchy. In quoting those lines, then, Meghan Markle aligned herself with one of the most galvanizing movements of intersectional feminism in recent history. This, above and beyond everything else, is an invaluable challenge to white supremacy. And perhaps this is resistance at its immaterial and irreverent best: a resistance that centers the power as well as the vulnerability of black womanhood—a resistance that, even if not seismic in its shift, makes powerful men nervous and uncomfortable.
The Duchess of Sussex’s resounding “no” to meeting with Trump is a rallying cry, speaking volumes of her unique brand of feminist political consciousness. Meghan Markle’s raw experience of black motherhood signals a turn towards a new chapter in her public career, an experience at once rooted in intimacy and transcending her social status.
Mira Assaf Kafantaris is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on royal marriage, foreign queens, and the discourse of race in the early modern period. Her work has appeared in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, The Palgrave Handbook of Shakespeare’s Queens, and The Rambling.