AS A child, Elizabeth Taylor confused me.
I do not mean the fact that she married often or seemed both painfully beautiful and unhappy. I mean the Elizabeth Taylor who portrayed the African Queen of Sheba. Her supporting actors were a mystery to me as well, since even as a child I could see that their skin was artificially darkened. My childhood mind could not articulate the confusion between what I was seeing on screen and the history that I had been exposed to from an early age. Elizabeth Taylor confused me because she was no queen of mine.
In a world where political correctness can quash serious conversation, it is essential to interrogate the concept of royalty. In spite of the media interest in the British House of Windsor, globally there are 25 other monarchies which rule with varying degrees of power over about 43 countries. Most of the monarchies are in Europe, then there is the Middle East and Africa. Queen Elizabeth II is monarch of countries within the Commonwealth, including some Caribbean nations, Canada and Australia. Thus, according to my admittedly shaky mathematical abilities, monarchies exist in less than one-quarter of the countries in the world.
Why should any of this matter? Apart from the fantasy, what purpose should royalty serve? “In the Hindu tradition,” says Pundit Ravi Ji, “the spiritual person often takes centre stage over the king and queen. When you are talking about noble people, we are really concerned with whether they adhere to strong dharmic practices, that is, their character or their wisdom.”
In the Ifa/Orisa tradition,
iwa pele or good character is also more important than wealth or royal lineage. Unfortunately, too often, children are fed quite different messages about royalty. The princess and the prince who rescues her, evil people who wish to harm the monarchy or mysterious spiritualists with the ability to destroy their institution.
As technology improves, so too do the visuals, locations, music and special effects that sell these stories. To be fair, these days there are princesses who can do battle (while of course looking incredibly beautiful). Even Disney princesses now come from indigenous, African or Chinese backgrounds; some even have red hair.
But whether it is an expensively made Netflix programme like The Crown or the 1960s documentary Royal Family, is it all just harmless entertainment? Even though modern stories about royalty make an effort to be politically correct, do they not further alienate former British subjects from themselves?
Why have so little time and resources been allocated to creating stories about our own royalty? Should children in the Caribbean not also be exposed to content about Yaa Asantewa, Ram, Amenhotep, Raja Rani or Shaka Zulu?
Certainly, the numbers support the need for a new direction in the kind of royalty we see across digital platforms. The film Black Panther was about a superhero, but it was also about a king. Achieving history with over $1 billion at the box office and millions more in merchandising and sales, the world sent a signal that it is ready for a new version of royalty.
“Massa day done.” “Sahib day done, yes suh Boss day done.” In 1961, Dr Eric Williams gave what is called his “Massa day done” speech in Woodford Square. It was his way of taking to the people a complex discussion about the negative impacts of colonialism on identity, sense of self and national development. Sadly, 60 years after this succinct description of freedom, we are still battling with media images that do little to celebrate our history or speak our truth.
In a world where political correctness often prevents us from speaking out or causes us to take offence at people who do, our obsession with royalty can perhaps do with a different point of view. That is, the point of view that keeps in perspective the economic inequities present in too many kingdoms today. The point of view that asks why would ordinary citizens take to the streets against monarchies? And the point of view which acknowledges that a significant portion of the wealth of many modern kingdoms is based on enslavement, indentureship and the exploitation of indigenous peoples.
In TT royalty has walked with us from the very beginning. We need to stop confusing children looking into those screens and tell the story of our kings and queens; the ones with wisdom and character and belly. You see, their story is also our story and future generations deserve our own version of royalty.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN