“Who are your people?” is the question that repeatedly came to me as I watched Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle’s mother, sitting a few feet away from her daughter at Saturday’s royal wedding. A common expression among southern African-Americans when greeting a stranger, it is never simply a matter of bloodline or individual biography. Rather, responses like “I’m the daughter of so and so” or “My family comes from here by way of there” serves the greater purpose of attesting to one’s place in history and potential bonds of kinship.
Despite Ms. Ragland’s being the sole member of Ms. Markle’s family at the wedding, we still know so little about her. In contrast to the media obsession with Ms. Markle’s father and his children from his first marriage, Ms. Ragland is a bit of a mystery who rarely gives interviews. As a result of her silence, we are left to deduce meaning from her physical image. As she sat across from the British monarchy in her pale green Oscar de la Renta dress and coat, it was the symbolism of her long dreadlocks, quietly tucked underneath her hat, that spoke volumes as it reminded us that black women’s natural hair is regal too.
Among the group of black women with whom I watched the ceremony early Saturday morning in New Jersey, she was a source of pride. Yet out of a sense of sisterly protection, we were also worried about her as she sat there alone, without siblings or friends. The wedding itself helped alleviate our fears, for even if none were physically present at St. George’s Chapel, the ceremony was filled with gestures, big and small, that explicitly celebrated her “people” and the various black worlds in which she raised Ms. Markle.
But it was “what are you?” — a substantially more alienating question than “who are your people?” — that Meghan Markle recalls hearing almost every day of her life. In a 2015 essay for Elle magazine, she wrote, “I’m an actress, a writer, the Editor-in-Chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes. A mouthful, yes, but one that I feel paints a pretty solid picture of who I am.” But such an answer is insufficient. Ms. Markle went on, “But here’s what happens: they smile and nod politely, maybe even chuckle, before getting to their point, ‘Right, but what are you? Where are your parents from?’ I knew it was coming, I always do.”