Reading, watching and listening to coverage of the recent engagement between soon-to-be-former-actress Meghan Markle and Prince Harry reveals a lot about how we think of race. “Descended from slaves” is a phrase I keep coming across in descriptions of Markle’s mother, Doria Radlan. In one piece, Radlan was referred to as “descended from slaves” while nothing of the ancestry of Markle’s father’s, Tom, was noted, beyond his being white. It doesn’t take much digging to see that Radlan holds a Master’s in social work, has been a certified yoga instructor for years, and during the day is a geriatric therapist. There is something wrong with a description that overlooks Radlan’s present in favor of a narrow lens to view the past.
The use of this dehumanizing word — “slave” — is incomprehensible. No one is a slave. There are only people — human beings with beating hearts — who are enslaved. Slave signifies a singular identity which ignores who an individual is; it’s a label that claims an entire person as if, somehow, they are slave first and human second; it’s an afterthought. Let’s humanize people with our language. Let’s honor their memory by speaking of them with the respect they were denied in life. There is no shame in being descended from people who were enslaved by those who refused to acknowledge the humanity of their fellow humans. To say that Markle is descended from slaves on her maternal side, solely, is to deny the truth.
Black people’s relationship with the modern world, our connection to history, is not simply enslavement. Every continent has enjoyed a golden era in which their people stood at the forefront of the sciences and mathematics. Africans sailed to the Western Hemisphere before Columbus stumbled upon it — really, he thought he was in India – and some Africans stayed in America while others returned home. Regardless of where they lived, Africans also kept navigating the seas. Black people’s impact on America did not begin and end with enslavement. The first successful open-heart surgery was performed by a Black surgeon. The addition of a yellow traffic light, which keeps cars from crashing around the world, was invented by a person of African descent. Advancements in agriculture were informed and made possible by a Black man. So were improvements in blood transfusions. The prototype for the masks that have saved the lives of so many brave firefighters was invented by a man whose parents were enslaved. After slavery ended in America, Black people ran for local government — and they won. Imagine that. Even during times of enslavement, not all black people were enslaved. But we know so little about their stories.
Black people’s relationship with the modern world is not simply enslavement.
Black and African achievements span the length and breadth of this world. To say, then, that Markle is “descended from slaves” is a grave understatement. She is descended from inventors, from scientists, from surgeons, from writers, from business owners, from women who put humankind on the moon, from people who have experienced the dark underbelly of human atrocity and built new life from it. That is what Markle is descended from; that is her heritage. Sure, you might have to fill your lungs with air before you say it, but wouldn’t we rather speak truth instead of misguided dismissals concerning an entire people?
“Descended from slaves” also shows us we’re still accustomed to, and far too comfortable with, minimizing Blackness to enslavement. It is a part of many people’s backgrounds, this evil, this resilience. But there are more chapters to this book, and, as a culture, we need to familiarize ourselves with them. We teach Black and African history as if separate from world history when truly it is unmistakably intertwined in the world’s advancements. We need to learn about the real history of all people in this world, and in as much wholeness as possible. Without it, we can only glimpse a restricted look into our past and we can only limit our growth for the future.
Markle wrote an article for Elle UK magazine about her heritage and her journey to becoming a “strong, confident mixed-race woman.” It was not an easy road. As a young girl, she had fill out a mandatory census in school and she didn’t know which box to check. Sadly, this is a common predicament among children of color: reconciling the fullness of one’s identity in a society that forces you to choose a box. Many Black youths grow up knowing they’re only allowed to check one box — despite their heritage being multicultural, as so many family lines are, because of their appearance. It is past time that we as a collective culture, as a global society, stopped forcing Black and mixed-race identities, of all forms, into boxes that are too small to contain their fullness. In her Elle piece, Markle made a beautiful connection between herself and her great-great-great-grandfather. Once released from enslavement, he was able to choose his own name, to make his own path. The name he chose was Wisdom: it redefined his identity.
Perhaps we need more of the spirit of Markle’s great-great-great grandfather. Let’s finally recognize the breadth of our achievements — achievements which, against all reasonable odds, allowed one of the deepest periods of oppression known to history to be overcome.