Legacies Can Be Complicated. Death Doesn’t Change That.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip attend a Baltimore Orioles baseball game in 1991 and try to ignore the strange behavior of that bloke behind them. I am like Queen Elizabeth in that I also have attended Oriole games, most recently last Saturday (we won’t talk about that particular game in this post).

My grandmother told my father she was proud of him when he left to fight in World War II because being an Eastern Band Cherokee woman, she knew how bad Andrew Jackson was and this Hitler man seemed to be just as bad. She also refused to carry a $20 bill because she “did not want that man’s picture in her purse.”

She felt that way about a president of the United States?, you may ask. Yes, she did, because as great Native comedian Charlie Hill once said, “we had a little real estate problem.” This particular little real estate problem. I grew up in a home where American history was, well, a rather complicated subject.

Therefore, when a moment like Queen Elizabeth II’s death occurs, I can understand the mixed feelings that some might feel. Especially the people who have experienced the horrors of colonialism, or are part of the group targeted by colonialism. These moments are fraught for such folks.

Many of them do not want to be disrespectful, but they are also well aware of the tendency to use a moment like the death of a leader to whitewash the bad parts, and disingenuously rehabilitate the system. It is part of colonialism, and colonialism runs deep in many countries, even ours. We see it here in the desperate attempt to cleanse any mention of slavery, the horrors of the Redemption period, and pretty much remove any reference in our schools of the racist parts of our own history. The anger I experience when trying to explain to people why mascots that mock Native Americans are not good is another example of colonialism. What you are telling us is “shut up, you are a conquered people.”

The death of Queen Elizabeth raised these tendencies in people and in some cases turned them to 11. Before you say “respect the dead talk about this later!,” let’s just say for many of us that is easier to read than The Pet Goat. There often never is a time to “talk about this later.”

In truth, her legacy really is complicated. Quite awful things actually did happen during her reign, and what happened in Kenya in the 1950s is a perfect example. “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly” is quite a statement. It probably would be good for the new king to formally apologize for the Anglican Church’s Indian schools in Canada.

There is also the Tweet by Uju Anya, an associate professor of second language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I find it interesting that many of the same people who scream about cancel culture on college campuses (hilariously-in-a-pathetic-way equating student protests with GOP authoritarianism) are either quiet or joining in with the chorus for CMU to fire Anya. I suppose one could see how colonialism plays into that sort of hypocrisy as well.

All that said, not every Indigenous person feels this way. People, like legacies, are complicated. MSNBC Host and Cheery Human Alex Wagner noted as she began her show Friday night that her mother, who is Burmese, was forced to change her given name under colonial rule, and that made the Queen’s legacy rather complicated in her own home growing up. At the same time, the Queen of course did some good things and she herself was not a bad person by most accounts.

The monarchy is a system and the system has a lot of blood on its hands. Often turning such a system from entrenched ideals, such as they are, is the figurative turning of an ocean liner. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, Te-Nihisi Coates, and other Black American writers have noted, it’s less about whether our historical figures were racists themselves than how oppressive the system was.

Black writer James Baldwin perhaps gave the best example of this argument.

Kudos to Dick Cavett for offering a wide forum for that argument, by the way.

The monarchy does have some influence on affairs in Britain and even beyond. It is nonsensical to claim she was this profoundly great person who did a lot and then claim she had no real power, an odd and rather silly argument I’ve heard from some quarters. I think there are many things that one can point to that Queen Elizabeth II has done to change this particular system. She has certainly made this monarchy more accessible. There have been some fairly significant gestures during her time, including one just after her death.

Perhaps we can view King Charles III’s legacy by how far he continues this effort to rehabilitate the system. More apologies are in order, and continued influencing would be good as well. He has an opportunity before him, and I hope he is as good with that as he has been about environmental issues.

The Queen is dead, long live the King. There will be a spectacle this week, and we humans love our spectacles. She will get a literal royal sendoff, and it would be perverse to hold it against anyone who wants to observe it, whether on the television or in person. There is kindness in both acknowledging that, and in acknowledging some might not want to join in for some very good reasons.

The last word goes to one of the Queen’s favorite singers, a British comic named George Formby whose cheery little ditties were so loved by Elizabeth it was rumored she considered being the president of his fan club, The George Formby Appreciation Society. My gift to you, Your Royal Highness.

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