Days before waking up in the wee hours to watch the wedding of American actor Meghan Markle and British royal Prince Harry, I was already pondering the meaning of a different service: “Beyoncé Mass,” held at the Grace Cathedral Church in San Francisco and presided over by Reverend Yolanda Norton and Reverend Jude Harmon.
Before I watched the video, I was ready to dismiss it as yet another example of literal celebrity worship—but it was clear from the integration of the pop star’s empowering songs in the service that Reverend Norton found strategic ways to utilize the symbolism of Beyoncé for theological and spiritual purposes in her construction of black feminist/womanist-based worship.
Women like Beyoncé and our American duchess understand that symbols can be mobilized for change and uplift. And in a year that brought us the celebrated record-breaking superhero film, Black Panther, in which black audiences worldwide showed our devotion to African stories steeped in royal traditions, it was more than fitting to watch a real-life royal wedding featuring the daughter of an African American woman.
Whether one is a royalist or anti-monarchist or still indulging the remnants of a colonialist mentality or elitist aspirations, it was easy to be moved by the efforts made to blend elements of British royal culture with Markle’s own African American heritage. The wedding featured a reading from the sexiest book in the Bible—Song of Solomon, a scripture that includes the words of the “Beloved” narrator describing herself as “black and beautiful.” The exuberant sermon of African American Bishop Michael Curry expanded on the biblical themes of romantic love and challenged us all to move towards agape love with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and slave spirituals. An Afro-British gospel choir sanctified the union with a rendition of Ben E. King’s classic ballad, “Stand By Me.” The young Afro-British celloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason displayed his prowess by performing from the classical musical canon while also sporting an afro.
And then there was the quiet and regal presence of Markle’s black mother, Doria Ragland, sitting opposite Queen Elizabeth in a similar yet more demure shade of green while proudly donning dreadlocks and a nose ring. That she was also accompanied on the bride’s side by wedding guests like tennis champion Serena Williams, sporting elaborately long braids while seated next to her husband, and America’s media “queen” herself, Oprah Winfrey, in a traditional church hat, signaled that we were not only not watching your typical English royal wedding, but that we had entered a new era of representations of black womanhood. Even judging by the natural hairstyles of the women in the Kingdom Choir, or the close-cropped hair of Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the queen who led the congregants in prayer for the bride and groom, it was clear that black women’s natural hair movement had expanded and triumphed in the Diaspora.
Such hairstyles on black women in the presence of white British royalty would have been unthinkable decades ago, and yet, here we are—with Markle’s mother taking the lead. Even Markle’s choice to wear a bun—and a “messy bun” at that—does subversive work in challenging the white hegemony surrounding the beauty and femininity of long, flowing straight hair or a neat and tidy bun. We saw black women entering white space and power and being fully themselves. Markle’s minimalist make-up and gown—the latter of which E Kehinde Thurman noted bears a striking resemblance to the one worn by black Panamanian Princess Angela of Liechtenstein when she had married into European royalty in 2000—suggests a naturalness and willingness to come to the table with a certain sense of authenticity.
But do these representations matter? We may debate ad nausea the racial politics of feeling validated when a biracial person is given “a seat at the table” and being viewed as “lifting as they climb,” carrying the entire black race with them—not unlike our own celebrations ten years ago when another biracial person, Barack Obama, became the first black president of the United States. Neither a black president nor a black princess is likely to change race relations, not in this era of anti-immigration Brexit struggles or the rise of a violent white extremist movement in the U.S., but neither should we ignore the significance of a popular British prince with tremendous global influence gazing with love upon his beloved, biting his lip after saying, “you look amazing,” and addressing such words of adoration to an American woman of color. The traditionalists who had looked to the British royal family as the last vestige of racial purity in the midst of a rapidly-changing multicultural social landscape must now feel under siege.
As Bishop Curry proclaimed, in ways that would shock the segregationists: “When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.”
I am quite certain Prince Harry made it easier for those white men and men of color out there to boldly own up to their interracial and intra-racial unions. I am sure that every black woman who has had to battle workplace and military rules prohibiting dreadlocks, braids, twist outs and other natural hairstyles can now point to Doria Ragland and say: “If she can wear dreadlocks to a royal wedding, I can wear this on the job!” Ragland just made acceptable what even our own Supreme Court would not. Such changes can only help to ease racial tensions, even if they are not a cure-all.
Considering these symbolic changes, some black church folks have said in response to the global event: “Look at God!” Even here, I would like to complicate this expression. For which God are we referring to here? This, of course, was the question I also pondered when watching Beyoncé Mass.
While Reverend Norton was clearly invoking the Judeo-Christian deity, I wonder if it is not time to expand our cosmologies to encompass our African orishas, as Beyoncé had done when she made manifest the beauty, glamour and power of Oshun, a Yoruba/Santeria/Candomble goddess of love, beauty, wealth and fertility. She had first invoked this orisha in her critically acclaimed visual album Lemonade, which managed to highlight the glorious beauty of black womanhood and to feminize the body of Williams, in defiance against some black men and white dominant media’s constant attempts at erasures of her womanhood. She did so, during the segment “Sorry,” in the space of a plantation home where their ancestors had been brutally oppressed. I cannot help but view this bold reclamation of white spaces, disrupted by sexualized black vernacular dancing, such as the twerk—another manifestation of Oshun’s sexual power—as well as images of Beyoncé eventually burning down the house before we cut to the terrain where the enslaved in Louisiana once rebelled against their oppression, as work inspired by an African-themed god.
As Beyoncé declared on the album: “When you love me, you love yourself… love God herself.”
When I participated in a Lemonade seminar with other scholars, organized by black feminists Kinitra Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin, one of the participants, Nicholas Jones, who is also an Obá Oriaté—a high priest in the Santeria religion—suggested that we view the Lemonade project as an initiation ceremony to Oshun. Whether Beyoncé unwittingly or deliberately unleashed the power of this goddess, known for holding up her mirror so we can all truly see ourselves, we might imagine that this orisha revealed herself through the vehicles of hypervisible black women on the global stage.
After flaunting their sexiness and posing as if they were the queens of the universe in Lemonade, both Beyoncé and Williams appeared in the same vicinity again when the pop star, in stunning braids and white outfit, attended the Wimbledon women’s final months after her album’s premiere to support the tennis champion as she claimed her seventh Wimbledon and 22nd grand slam title. Interestingly, days before this dramatic win, another friend of Williams’ went unnoticed while sitting not too far from the Royal box at the Wimbledon games. Unbeknownst to the public, the Suits actor had just gone on that fateful blind date with a British prince set up by a mutual friend while she was in town to see Williams play.
A then-globally unknown Markle may not have predicted how, two years later, she would come to rival two of the most highly visible black women for the world’s attention when she married her prince in a globally televised event. However, in that moment at the Wimbledon games, in the wake of post-Lemonade black feminist awakenings, we might imagine a divinity like Oshun showing up and showing out—as she demonstrated later in the year when she blessed both Williams and Beyoncé with pregnancy (of twins, no less!), Williams with an engagement and Markle with a prince—one who issued an unprecedented statement against racist and sexist media coverage which essentially announced to the world his romantic involvement with a woman of color.
Beyoncé quite literally doubled down on her homage to the African goddess when highlighting her pregnancy on Instagram and in an ethereal and jaw-dropping Grammy performance. Despite the resurgence of conservative white male supremacy in the world, black women are finding themselves in highly visible spaces and bringing unapologetic black girl magic into the spheres of cultural and political influence. This visibility now encompasses a celebration of their beauty and choices in love—the domains of Oshun—be it interracial in the case of Markle and Williams, black love in the case of Beyoncé or queer love, as Janelle Monae recently demonstrated with her album Dirty Computer.
These changes may only be symbolic, but representations still hold the potential to transform our social realities.
Special thanks to Kinitra Brooks, who provided helpful feedback on this piece.
Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.
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