WWithin minutes of the announcement of Prince Philip’s death, I began receiving messages from friends in Ghana. “My condolences on your loss,” said one. “May God bless you and all grieving in the UK,” said another. On a human level, respectfully acknowledging the loss that comes with death makes sense. But why do these posts describe it as me lost?
I am not the only one who feels that the monarchy is an institution that cannot be embraced, although even now that is not easy to say. If I do not express my deference and loyalty, I will be brutally attacked by those who consider me unpatriotic. I’ll be the bad black, the ungrateful “guest” (no matter this is my country), the disloyal colonial subject who forgot how much Britain did for me.
The public reaction to the death of Prince Philip has centered on how much he, personally, has done. By all accounts, he was the most active member of the royal family, having apparently led more than 20,000 commitmentsand with more than 800 presidencies and sponsorships. Many young people benefited from the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards program.
But these acts of public service come with conditions. We become accomplices in a toxic transaction that, in exchange for their privileges, deprives royalty of their privacy or control over their own destinies, and entitles us to endless, poisonous coverage of the minutiae of their lives.
For our part, we abandon our supposed commitment to meritocracy and equality by accepting that these human beings are born worthy of special reverence. We receive access to his charity, but in return we lose our freedom to challenge his authority. The good deeds and charitable endeavors of royalty are not in themselves a justification for the monarchy.
The truth is, there is no way to escape the haunting legacy of the empire. Their ghosts have long gripped our royal family, making them emperors without colonies, bounty hoarders without raids, conquerors without wars. Instead, they are the heads of a Commonwealth in which the colonized are renamed “friends” with “a shared history.” This is a fantasy thing.
As is the idea, ridiculously popular in tributes to Prince Philip, that he was some kind of frustrated comedian. We have all now remembered his famous words: saying to the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was wearing national dress: “It seems that he is ready to go to bed”; or advise British students in China not to stay too long or they would end up with “slanted eyes”. A Cambridge-educated, British, black friend of mine received a classic “compliment” from Prince Philip when she met him “You speak English beautifully!” he said.
In recent days we have heard numerous euphemisms deployed to cover these outbursts without calling them for what they were. “His ‘gaffes’ were typical of clubbish humor of the officer class. “It was” politically incorrect “and” forceful. “Nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, but these are not excuses for Philip as much as alibis for British commentators, desperate to avoid confronting the true legacy of British Imperial Expansion: Racism A bad word that uncomfortably it undermines the glorious narrative that royalty still helps to project. The colonization of “minor towns” was by definition a project of white supremacy, and one personified by the royal family at the head of the empire: of course it made racist jokes.
If calling Prince Philip “a man of his time” is admitting that royalty exists in some kind of time capsule, then I agree. The institution, as the experience of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has made clear, is outdated.
Both the presence of Meghan and the racist treatment of the press to which she was subjected offered the monarchy a unique opportunity to embrace a woman of African descent, acknowledge her complicated relationship with this heritage in the past and at least appear committed to a new era of equality. He couldn’t have failed the test more dramatically.
Meanwhile, Britain’s honors system continues to glorify the pain felt by the survivors of colonialism and their descendants. This system, which, two generations after Prince Philip, is still actively promoted, rewards the British for their achievements in remarkable terms. He asks us to aspire to see ourselves as “Members”, “Officers” or even “Commanders” of the British Empire, a painful act of betrayal of our history.
For those who are opposed to projecting this painful story onto a single recently deceased old man, this is the very problem with the concept of monarchy. Of course, there is an individual analysis, in which Prince Philip was a fascinating historical actor whose waypoints towards the end of an era. His childhood was marked by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. His body carried the genetic memory of the Bolshevik revolution and its fatal consequences for the Romanovs: in 1993, his DNA was used to identify their remains.
Philip’s marriage to the queen is a legacy of Queen Victoria’s project to unite Europe through dynastic marriages, based on a deep recognition of the need for peace on the continent. It is a virtuous ideal with much to offer to the very people who most noisily bow down to royalty, if they really wanted to learn.
But our personal relationships with the monarchy cannot exist in a vacuum. Before expressing any fondness for royalty, I have to ask myself, am I unconsciously seeking approval from the predominantly white society that rewards blacks in particular for showing their loyalty?
Do penalties threaten me for not participating in this period of forced mourning? Many television journalists like myself are, after all, at the mercy of a ruling party that has made clear its willingness to reprimand broadcasters who do not seem patriotic enough.
Above all, the unspoken requirement that we publicly celebrate the monarchy’s achievements, or mourn any of its losses, requires that I internalize a history of violence and racism against my own ancestors. The instinct I still have to apologize for not doing so is proof of the strength with which those forces still exist. So if there is an appropriate tribute to the passing of Prince Philip, I think it would be to honestly learn the lessons of his life and the reaction to his death.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism