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A royal lesson

Racism, real or implied, has no place inside the royal family nor does it have any place in the nation this family represents

Lady Hussey with the late Queen in 2020. Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo

When Princess Diana visited my hometown of Chicago the summer before she died, that hard-boiled city of Al Capone went bananas.

It was so crazy that the late Mike Royko, one of the real-life examples of those newspaper guys you see in old movies, quoted one of his readers: “I’m watching the Cubs and I do a little channel surfing and, lo and behold, there’s Channel 2’s chopper giving us live coverage of Di’s limo. These idiots at Channel 2 give her limo helicopter coverage?”

Royko replied: “What is she, the Princess of Wales, or whatever that is? I’ve never understood why anyone is interested in all that English royalty stuff. Look at the population of this city – Blacks, Hispanics, Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Koreans, Jews. What the hell do we care about some so-called royal family? What is this, some kind of hick town?”

Part of me moved to London, to the UK, to get away from the royal family. Because I thought that since they were here, always here, they were kind of like the trees or fresh air: nobody really paid attention to them. Was I wrong!

Full disclosure: my late mother was a royalist. She probably would not have called herself that, but she was. Maybe it was unavoidable. A working-class African-American girl, obsessed with the movies and fan magazines, she was fed a diet of Princess Elizabeth during the second world war.

My mother got married a year after the then-princess did; managed to have me a few days after the princess had her first; named me after him (he was nicknamed “Bonnie Prince Charlie” as a baby); had her third daughter in the coronation year and named her “Regina”, and so forth.

It was always a mystery to me as to how Charles – 18 years old in 1967’s Summer of Love – seemed to completely escape the ’60s and all it stood for. But he did.

When I went to the Palace in 2010 to receive my OBE, pinned on by Charles, there were people of colour there. Many. I’ve been a patron of his Prince’s Trust; been to Clarence House a few times; poked around looking at the family pictures he set out. There were plenty of people of colour there, too, and I never got the impression that he was uncomfortable with us or putting on a show.

So all this to say that, in a strange way, this country’s obsession with the royals and the explosion caused by a retainer of the late Queen go hand-in hand. There is a love/hate thing with the Windsors which consumes a lot of this country’s oxygen.

But, strangely, many British people seem to know nothing about them. Don’t seem to know their origin; the fact that they were princes in Germany until George V ended that along with changing the name to “Windsor”. This is not taught in general. Why not?

And in this mature, multi-ethnic nation, few people seem to know that it is not uncommon for a woman of African descent born outside of Africa to change her name. It is a way to name ourselves. “Greer” was the name of the man who owned my father’s ancestors. I changed my name at university in the ’70s and again when I hung out on the fringes of Spike Lee’s beginnings in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in the ’80s. Common stuff.

But somehow, Ngozi Fulani changing her name from her birth name and dressing like she wanted to dress for a trip to the Palace, has added to the uproar around an incident that should never have happened. And that uproar is racist.

Lady Susan Hussey is a retainer of the late Queen. Her job was to do things like carry the royal handbag, and to create a firewall around the Windsors, one that does not allow in daylight.

Diana’s escape; her coming to Chicago for charity and taking time to dance with daytime television hosts and have a laugh with ordinary people, people like my mom, should have been a sign to the royals that The People wanted something else. Something new.

Because we The People keep them in their elevated space. Unlike the Greeks, for example, who laugh at anyone called “Prince so and so of Greece.” A Greek friend once told me: “Ouzo is ‘of Greece’. We have no kings and queens. We got rid of them.”

Meghan Markle was a Good Thing. Then she became a Bad Thing, because let’s face it, many in the UK could not settle down to a woman of African descent marrying into their fairy tale. They still can’t; just look at some of the commentary around the Sussexes’ new Netflix series.

Susan Hussey is a racist by this definition: she clearly needed to ask that outmoded, discredited question: “Where do you come from?” And then not accept the answer.

The crazy part of this is that Charles, through his charities, and William, through Centre Point, a charity for homeless and at risk young people, know plenty of savvy folks who could come in to help. Because they need help. Right now.

One more thing about Lady Hussey. Three years ago, Jane Fonda announced that she had celebrated her 82nd birthday in jail after being arrested while protesting in support of climate activism. Susan Hussey and Jane Fonda were both in their twenties in the 1960s. Hussey was born on May 1 1939. Fonda, December 21 1937. Clearly, Fonda made the choice to go down one path. And Hussey another.

We can see this if we want to, because one of the benefits of having the royal family is that they hold up a mirror to the nation. We can choose not to look into that mirror; choose not to engage with it.

But the royal family can help by showing us themselves in full view. And the changes that they must undergo. If they do not, then they have no purpose other than to feed the kind of rancid nostalgia that Royko implied in his cri de coeur back in ’96.

The new King said, at his accession ceremony before the Privy Council, that he accepted that his was a “constitutional monarchy”. Besides accepting the will of parliament, he has another job: to help to make the nation better.

To help it see what it really is: a diverse country on the edge of massive change. And a part of a complex, interlocked, international reality.

Racism, real or implied, has no place inside of, or around, the royal family. And it has no place in the nation this family represents to the world.

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