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Harry, Meghan and the Presence of History
Also I escaped from Ron DeSantis's Florida!
(This newsletter is also available via Puck where I include the full article on Meghan and Harry merely excerpted below. I’ll try to do an IG Live this week where I read the piece and talk with you about it. No set time yet, so if you’re into that platform, follow me and turn on notifications for when I go live.)
It’s official. I’ll be making a second season of my PBS series, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston! Network president Paula Kerger announced it at the Television Critics Association last week, and we aren’t wasting any time. Starting next month, I’ll be heading out intermittently to experience more of our connection to nature and bring those stories to you. I’ll try to plan my newsletters so as not to miss this lovely schedule we’ve been on, but if I abandon all these screens for the life of an ice fisherman, I hope you’ll be the first to understand.
Meanwhile, I had planned to write this week with an update on post-Elon Twitter and what it means for social media and Gen Z in particular, but I’ll save that for a future edition. One related nugget I will share now comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Massey Lectures, delivered on CBC Radio, in 1967. In one lecture he warned that a “distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it” by, in part, increasing feelings of alienation rather than deepening trust and connection. If anything, his analysis of the threat of technology is even more relevant today, and proves the continued connection of the past to the present and future.
Just don’t tell that to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, or he’ll block access to even more of the real M.L.K. in his absolutely batshit effort to fuel his political rise by stoking the flames of a culture war that prioritizes ignorance over knowledge. In the latest move, his administration rejected a pilot version of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course on African American Studies. That course, according to the Florida Department of Education, “lacks educational value” and violates state law, presumably the Stop Wrong to Our Kids and Employees Act. Stop W.O.K.E., get it?? The law bans teaching “critical race theory” (see my proposed way to handle that) and also manages, ironically, to butcher language in its very title—“stop wrong to our kids” is terrible grammar. Also last week, the Florida College System presidents vowed to remove “all woke positions and ideologies” by February 1 this year, just in time to pull off the most whitewashed Black History Month ever! If those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, then DeSantis is condemning the children of Florida to be left behind as the world moves forward.
But none of the above are the focus of today’s newsletter. Read on for my surprising-even-to-me take on the value of Harry and Meghan, the Montecito-dwelling, controversial British semi-royals whose recent Netflix documentary has become a bingeable sensation (even for hate-watchers). Spare, Harry’s memoir ghost-written by J.R. Moehringer, has also set all kinds of publishing records. Yep, I’ve got thoughts to share about the supercouple, and I promise it’s actually connected to what happens when we hide from our history.
Harry & Meghan in History
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.
There’s lots more to the story, of course.
I acknowledge my own fatigue with these two in the news seemingly all the 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.
I address Meghan’s racial awakening:
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.
I also talk about Harry’s awakening, and I draw some parallels to Kindred, the television series based on the novel by Octavia Butler:
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.
I hope you read the entire thing or join me on Instagram to hear it. Also, Harry’s memoir, Spare, is a banger! I literally can’t stop listening to it. I’ve shoved all podcasts and other audio aside for the time being.
Have a great week!