Finding the Americans most excited about the British royal family can be a competitive business. The former colony’s citizens have been known to get into a perhaps unlikely frenzy over British royals ever since the future King Edward VII was met by fawning crowds during his visit to North America in 1860.
But Prince Harry’s engagement this week to the American actor Meghan Markle, whose mother is black and father is white, struck a chord with a part of the population rarely reflected in European monarchies: black American women.
The engagement news was celebrated loudest on Black Twitter, the moniker for the hordes of black social media users who can drive trending stories for the day by discussing them collectively from a black frame of reference.
It was there that Tyler Young, who edits a tech newsletter covering innovators of color, wrotethat Prince Harry and Markle’s wedding next year would be her “Super Bowl”, a message shared more than 9,200 times. Her tweet was part of a torrent of celebrations and funny gifs from black people, who explored what it meant that this “black American princess” was actually mixed-race and the significance of her mother having dreadlocks.
“For centuries, our stories, particularly for African American women, have gone mute, silenced by systems of oppression and hate,” Young, a writer and producer, told the Observer.
The royal engagement instead promotes a positive story about a woman of color who was accomplished well before she met a prince, Young said.
“In my eyes, I see a woman, one who grew up in a country that often overlooks women of color, now on a world stage proving that we have the right to be happy,” Young said. “We deserve love and new beginnings. When I see Meghan, I see a light of love.”
Markle, whose skin is darker than that of dozens of other women who have found themselves engaged to an heir to to the throne (Harry is fifth in line), joins the family at a time when racial divisions in her home country have been spotlighted by Donald Trump.
Critics say the president has demolished the standards for what a modern American leader is allowed to say publicly about women and racial and religious minorities, which might be why Americans are so eager to celebrate a couple that suggests power and status does not have to corrupt dignity.
“Prince Harry’s future mother-in-law is a black woman with dreadlocks,” the British writer Samara Linton tweeted. “There are no words for this kind of joy.”
“I really wish my grandmother were alive to see one of Diana’s sons marry a black woman,” said the American writer Ashley Ford.
Elisa Tamarkin, author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, said American interest in the British royal family transcended class, race and religious divisions.
“There’s a way in which Americans can be more excited than the English,” Tamarkin said. “These are not our monarchs, they are our former monarchs. There is a way in which the royal family can remain this vital object of attention, because in many ways it’s of no importance to a nation that can relinquish it.”
It took 77 years for some Americans to curtail revolutionary frustrations with British rule and embrace the royal family. That’s when Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII, visited North America for four months in 1860. He was met in major cities by crowds of tens of thousands of people and appeared on the cover of Harper’s magazine five times in six weeks.
At the time, the US was on the brink of civil war – fought primarily over the issue of slavery – and the prince’s visit presented a glamorous distraction from the boiling tensions of the day.
“Even at a moment when no one could agree on anything, it was a moment of civil war, this something that was described as a universal feeling, this love for the English prince,” Tamarkin said.
As much as many might wish it weren’t notable, Markle’s race matters. The engagement was celebrated by women of color across the globe, but for Americans, Markle is not just a woman of color, but one of their own. Markle previously wrote on her website TheTig.com about her grandfather living through segregation in the US, and her experience with race has been predominantly in the US, where her black mother still lives.
Markle is light-skinned, and as she explained in an essay for Elle UK in 2015, can pass for many different ethnicities. But her new role in a traditionally white institution still carries historical weight.
“This is a marker in 21st-century history,” said Nell Irvin Painter, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and the author of The History of White People. “This could not have happened in a previous generation, in a late-20th-century generation.”
Painter said the world had been creeping towards a more diverse royal family as the salience of whiteness shrinks over time. If Harry and Markle have children, Painter said, the reaction could be even more interesting. “It’s possible that a child would be browner than either of their parents,” she said.
For now, attention is focused on their May wedding at Windsor Castle.
Young will be watching in her living room hosting a party with her friends.
“I may cry a little,” she said. “On the royal wedding day, my assistant will be instructed to hold all calls as I will be glued to a TV while simultaneously tweeting my musings using the hashtag #wegotusablackprincess.”