As the House of Windsor welcomes Meghan Markle, a half-black American, into its fold with what will likely be a fairy tale-worthy wedding to Prince Harry, we should realize that as momentous as this mixed-race marriage is in our 21st century landscape, the groundwork for such unions was laid once upon a time.
As a professor of Renaissance literature at Bowie State University, Maryland’s oldest historically black university, I make it a point to incorporate the historical presence of black individuals into my course. And it’s a lot easier than you may think. A careful study of British and European history demonstrates that the narratives and images of an all-white Europe disseminated through mainstream media are inaccurate.
Indeed, black lives matter in English and history classrooms.
Archaeology has proven as much. An African auxiliary unit of the Roman Army was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall a century after Christ’s birth. The African-born Roman Emperor Septimius Severus extended the empire’s borders in 208 A.D. when he refortified the Antonine Wall in Scotland. With the help of 3-D imaging of ancient bones found in England’s East Sussex, anthropologists created a craniofacial reconstruction of a woman of African descent who lived in the area around 245 A.D.
Why is this important? Because identity politics matter in classrooms where students often feel marginalized and excluded by the historical narrative. Africans were part of British history, and it is important to discuss it. Doing so inspires students of African descent to care more about such history.
It’s only natural.
Just think of the feeling of pride you got when you learned that your people — Germans, Spaniards, Italians, whoever — won a war, sponsored an explorer or created an artistic movement. We can’t forget that many of our students are often bereft of such moments of pride in our classroom. So often they only hear of their ancestors as defeated, pillaged, raped, oppressed, enslaved and disenfranchised. We must incorporate stories that are multi-faceted, include portrayals that are positive, and normalize their existence in the classroom.
We need to name names and share images.
For example, John Blanke was a black man who arrived in England with the court of Catherine of Aragon. Blanke performed in January 1511 at the celebration of Prince Henry’s birth. The Westminster Tournament Roll depicts Blanke riding a horse alongside his fellow trumpeters. His dark skin is tangible, and his turban offers an additional cultural juxtaposition to the two white men who flank him without any head covering. Blanke’s prominence in court is recorded in a 1512 document that shows King Henry gifting Blanke and his wife a violet cloth gown, a bonnet and a hat to celebrate their marriage.
The most criminally underknown mixed-race figure in royal history is Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence from 1532 to 1537. He was the son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici and an African servant, whose name is believed to be Simunetta. The well-educated Alessandro ascended to the throne to become the first Medici to be a hereditary Duke of Florence. Painted portraits of Alessandro clearly show lips that are plumper, a nose that is broader, hair that is curlier and skin that is darker than those of other European princes.
One attempt to obfuscate his story can be found in Baltimore’s Walters Museum of Art.
There hangs the “Portrait of Maria Salviati de' Medici with Giulia de' Medici,” a 1539 painting featuring Alessandro’s daughter and her caretaker. This is the painting’s newly christened name. It arrived simply as a portrait of Maria. Someone had painted over the little girl with her plump limps and rounded nose. Her portrait was unearthed during a cleaning of the painting in 1937.
Why is this important? First, it shows how much more we have to learn about Europe’s multi-racial legacy. Second, identifying with history is significant. One of my students was incredibly moved by this painting because it looked just like photos of her as a toddler. As someone who is a quarter-black, she never imagined seeing a painting of someone who looked like her in a Renaissance art exhibit.
We cannot underestimate the importance of seeing yourself celebrated in history and literature, especially in that which is labeled as canonical and worthy of study. As the British royal family and our student body becomes more diverse, it is important that we educate future generations about the rich multi-racial legacy that preceded them.
Horacio Sierra (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of English at Bowie State University.