How the royal wedding reflects on America's 'black elite'
Prince William of Wales married Catherine Middleton today during an event that some have deemed “the most anticipated wedding ceremony of the decade” and others have criticized as overblown media circus.
Cakes, carriages, and celebrity cameos will mark the occasion, with Beyoncé and Jay-Z rumored to be delivering a rare joint performance. Hundreds of tourists have flocked to the abbey where the couple wed, pitching tents and camping outside in the hope of catching a glimpse of the royal party.
Exciting as all this may seem, black Americans have responded with somewhat less enthusiasm. For the most part, to dare to breach the subject in barber shops, board rooms, or dinner tables across the country is to invite complaints that the overseas royal spectacle is a waste of time, culturally irrelevant to black Americans, or just plain boring.
Perhaps there’s some legitimacy to this view. After all, by and large we share neither race, heritage, or nationality with the royal family. But as a minority group operating under a two-party political system that publicly shirks the concept of a monarchy but privately adheres to systems of nepotism and elitism that similarly consolidate power by bloodline, we should be paying close attention to the royal goings-on.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the royal wedding may inspire eye rolls and snoozefests. But because it reveals how much the royal family means — and what it represents — to Britain and the world at large, it should also remind black America of the importance of developing and maintaining leadership figures who proudly and visibly embody the cultural values of our community.
This concept of black royalty is hardly unfamiliar to us. After all, we lay claim to both the “King of Pop” and the “Queen of Soul”. Even the so-called “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Elvis Presley, is said to have built his career around the influence and innovation of black musicians. Queen Latifah has had us all celebrating her “royal badness” for years, and Ciara “Princess” Harris has taken the R&B world by storm. But it’s not just in the realm of music that we’ve come to experience these sorts of royal labels. We’ve been cruelly and ironically reduced to “welfare queens” in the political sphere, and seen the images of our royal African ancestors fetishized and stereotyped in the fashion and media industries. We’ve laughed along with the “Kings of Comedy”, and traveled to Queens, New York with “Prince Akeem”, the iconic fictional African prince played by Eddie Murphy in Coming to America.
While royalty undoubtedly has a place in our modern culture, it’s also played a part in our history. Though he may not have used the term royalty explicitly, W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of a “Talented Tenth” incorporated similar themes when discussing the importance of black leadership, echoing values and roles that the current British monarchy is still putting forward.
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” DuBois wrote in 1903, just as today, the British government explains on its website that “In a constitutional monarchy…the British Sovereign aka the Queen…continues to play an important part in the life of the nation”.DuBois praised the “effort and example” of an “aristocracy of talent and character” among the Talented Tenth that makes them “leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.” Today, the royal Queen similarly “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.”
How far have we come since W.E.B. DuBois put forward this vision of leadership, and who is playing this role for the black community today? While it’s true that some black family incomes have reached their highest levels yet, and the U.S. has its first ever black president, many are struggling to find jobs, budget battles are ongoing, and black people are facing discrimination and higher rates of incarceration than ever before. There’s plenty of evidence indicating that it’s harder for blacks to achieve socioeconomic mobility than it is for non-blacks. And there is a critical lack of black leadership to address these ongoing issues.
So who will be the ones to step into this role? Barack and Michelle Obama are obvious candidates. But we need more than a handful of exceptional individuals. Rather, we are in need of a renewed class of black leaders who are characterized as much by their personal successes as they are by their commitment to the betterment of the community.
Lawrence Otis Graham, a Harvard-educated black attorney who wrote the New York Times-bestselling book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, thinks he has the key to finding these folks. He is creating a registry of the 800 wealthiest and most socially elite black families, that would be “the first publication to ever rank America’s black community.”
Graham says that the register will focus on ‘the talented tenth’ — the kind of blacks that sociologist W.E.B. DuBois discussed 100 years ago, and explicitly noted that he won’t be including “basketball players or rap stars who use the n-word” on his list.
While Graham’s taken an important step in acknowledging the need to select and promote examples of black talent and success, his approach also contains serious flaws. While black leadership might mimic that of the British monarchy in intent, it must also make several critical departures from that model to battle elitism and promote egalitarianism. Thus conflating wealth with leadership capacities is problematic, as is excluding entire groups of people for their occupation or language choice.
Ultimately, the future of black progress lies not in the elitist boastings of a select group of people, but in a shared set of values that encourages successful black people to give back to the community and “pull all that are worth saving up to their vantage ground.” This is they key, DuBois said, to “all of human progress,” including that of black folk.
So whether you plan to set your alarm for an unspeakably early hours to watch the overseas matrimony unfold in real time, or sleep soundly through the action with nothing more than a shrug, consider this: While more vocal and meaningful black leadership is certainly needed, perhaps in process of realizing this vision, each of us is charged with making up the true black American royal family. Maybe the real path to growth and progress is to treat each other like kings and queens. And we don’t need a diamond ring or multi-million-dollar royal wedding to make that happen.