Queen Elizabeth II may have been on the throne to witness the dismantling of the empire. But she was also monarch for the brutal subjugation of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, which Britain recently paid nearly £20 millions compensation to the victims. And she was queen when the government supported the Nigerian suppression of Biafra separatists who starved a million children to death in the late 1960s. The power of the nation and the symbolic force of the monarch have been inseparable from empire.
My paternal grandmother was born in colonial Jamaica in 1914 and raised in the fairy tales of the motherland and the nobility of British royalty. She emigrated to Britain in search of better opportunities in the mid-1950s as part of the so-called Windrush generation, which helped rebuild the nation after World War II. A picture of the Queen took pride of place in her living room and if she were alive today she would have wholeheartedly joined in the collective grief. But my father grew up in the 1960s, faced with the cold realities of British racism and never felt any warmth towards the nation or its figurehead. When he was 13, he followed my grandmother to the UK. It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes. He had to share a small townhouse with four other families who each occupied one of the bedrooms. This type of crowding was banal as black people were forced into inner cities and denied decent housing. He witnessed and suffered so much police brutality and harassment that he eventually became a public defender to provide legal protection to those caught in the system. Before that, it was an integral part of the British Black Power movement, protest and organize Black-led education, housing and counseling initiatives to help Black communities survive our harsh realities.
For my parents, the queen came to symbolize the racist ills of the country. Their generation was stalked in the streets by fascists who shouted racial slurs and inflicted violent assaults if they caught up with them. It is no coincidence that these fascists bathed in the British flag and pledged unwavering allegiance to the Queen. To date, if a pub has a British flag on the outside, I will not go inside. Suffice it to say, I can’t even imagine my father, who moved back to Jamaica when he retired, owning a picture of the Queen, other than for parody.
Even as a child, I instinctively felt uncomfortable when we were forced to sing the national anthem “God Save the Queen” at school; I refuse to get up when I hear it now. The way the Royal Family treated Prince Harry and Meghan Markle only made those feelings worse. The only time Markle resonated with many black Britons was when she spoke about the pain than racism to be in the family caused. No one but Oprah was surprised to learn that the family was worried about their baby being black. It was recently revealed that until at least the late 1960s Buckingham Palace banned black and brown people to be employed there as an office worker. It is unclear how long the ban remained in place, as the Queen remained exempt from race and gender equality legislation for her entire life.
This is why it should come as no surprise that the Queen is not a figure around which the whole nation has rallied. I live in an area of Birmingham, England’s second largest city, which was marked by white flight once blacks and browns started settling in, much like the United States. Platinum Jubilee, to celebrate seventy years of his reign, my neighborhood was an oasis, completely detached from the street parties and endless bunting that my friends in whiter neighborhoods had to endure. I clearly remember seeing more flags in solidarity with Palestine than British flags displayed during celebrations of the Queen’s reign.
Recently, we celebrated the so-called Commonwealth Games, which are essentially underground Olympics. But the Commonwealth is simply a new brand image; the sporting event was originally called the British Empire Games. It is a collection of former colonies ruled by the royal family whose main purpose seems to be to boost Britain’s self-esteem after the end of the empire. Until recently, the queen presided over the games, adorned with her jewels stolen from various colonies, at the head of an (almost) exclusively white family, which parades in the spoils of colonialism and reigns over a vast empire (or what rest of the Commonwealth). The Royal Family remains so popular because they are one of the remnants of when Britain was ‘great’, a living, breathing piece of colonial nostalgia for the nation to indulge in.
The Queen was cherished as a monarch because she didn’t rock the boat, and there have already been fears over Charles get too involved in politics as king. The only practical difference his death will make to many of our lives is that the image on money and stamps will change. The abolition of the monarchy is long overdue. Now, maybe that’s an opportunity because the queen was so popular, and certainly not all Commonwealth countries like Charles. And now, as Caribbean nations renew their demands for Britain to pay reparations for slavery, it looks like the monarch will be deposed sooner as head of state in the former colonies. This will hopefully have a ripple effect in Britain.
So the majority of the nation mourns the symbol, not the woman, and that is precisely why so many of us will be spending the next few weeks in a state of Du Bois double consciousness – feeling alienated from Britain again. because of our experiences of being black.