The Queen’s death has been marked with millions of words describing her achievements and qualities, but in all that coverage one thing has been missed: as far as Black communities were concerned, she was the “Teflon” Queen. It was an extraordinary thing.
There was outrage among many Black Britons at the treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales, by the royal family. Many identified with Diana. Like them, she seemed to have been marginalised and othered by a very British institution. When she died, large numbers, many of them middle-aged Black women, made their way to Buckingham Palace to leave flowers and mourn, angered that the family had not properly marked the tragedy with appropriate ceremony. The Queen and others were judged to have stayed too long at Balmoral – and not come back to the palace to mourn. Yet the blame was on Charles, and the rest of the royal collective. The Queen escaped censure from Black Britons who were supporters of the monarchy and those with roots to the Commonwealth.
Look forward years later to the sad departure from the royal mothership of Meghan Markle. That was a body blow for Black monarchists, and even for many uninterested people. Meghan’s marriage to Harry, that multicultural wedding with the songs and hymns so many Black Britons recognised, was embraced as a landmark. The nation’s foremost institution recognising the social and realities of modern Britain. And when it all went wrong, with accusations of othering and racism, there was disappointment and anger aplenty – but again, the Queen was seen to be above it all. Why? Because she had her own special contract, particularly with the older Windrush generation, who retained a degree of deference towards her.
The only time I recall dissatisfaction with her related to the New Cross fire in 1981. The families and the wider community expected some commiseration from her about their loss, especially asa she had reached too those who had been affected by a fatal fire in Dublin. She never did. There was a fragility about the regard in which she was held at that moment.
But King Charles III will face a different set of challenges. He will need to strike a whole new contract.
I have been to the palace three times, and have met both the late Queen and King Charles. I attended a drinks reception for pioneers of national and cultural history. There were celebrities there and athletes. We were given G&Ts and then watched as the Queen and other members of the royal family worked the room. On another occasion I went to a state banquet dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian independence. It was a very grand affair, with government minsters, famous Ghanaians and high commissioners from various African countries. The Queen, very practised, gave a speech, as did the president of Ghana, and a regimental band played most of the evening. The third time was in 2012, when I received an OBE for tackling health inequalities in Britain. It was given to me by Charles.
I am uneasy about the OBE and the link of that title to empire. I think there should a way for society to reward those who have made a contribution; that is why I took it. But there is a growing campaign to have the word empire replaced with excellence, and many of us support it.
As the King comes to terms with his new role, he will find that he needs to have an entirely different conversation with us that that of his mother. He needs to be more upfront about Britain’s history in Africa and the Caribbean, and at some stage there will have to be some kind of apology. The Queen never really made a speech about racism and that didn’t count against her. I don’t think he will get that benefit of the doubt. He has a Black antecedent, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George lll. It would be nice, as part of his engagement with Black communities, if he would say: “I too have Black ancestors”
There will also have to be a reckoning about the past and engagement with the growing calls for reparations
I wish the King well. It is a new era. He will be many things the Queen was
not, but he will have to work to gain the affection there was for her. The “Teflon” days are over.
Patrick Vernon is community activist and cultural historian and co-author of 100 Great Black Britons