Princesses fictional and real, from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty to Princess Diana, all have in common skin as pure white as the driven snow.
Black girls, popular folklore suggests, don’t grow up to be princesses.
The engagement this week of Princess Diana’s youngest son Prince Harry to a biracial American actress named Meghan Markle delighted many African-Americans, who greeted the news on social media with increasingly rapturous gifs, memes and liberal use of all caps.
#blackprincess gained traction on Twitter and Instagram, with users celebrating Markle’s African ancestry and the fact that Harry’s mother-in-law would be a dreadlocked black Californian. (For the record, Markle will probably be a duchess, not a princess.)
The reaction is understandable. Since the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism created the idea of a single African race, the term “black princess” has been an oxymoron. The conception of black womanhood that scholars frequently cite — mammy, jezebel or sapphire — is antithetical to the idea of a princess, a cosseted women whose prince comes to sweep her off her feet and solve all of her troubles.
In fact, black women have become royals for years and years, unbeknown to many.
Some aristocratic families in Europe have already broadened the idea of what sort of spouse is acceptable, said Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, whose great-great-great-grandfather was Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, king of Hungary. His wife, Archduchess Lei von Habsburg-Lothringen, is an African-American lawyer who grew up in the traditionally black New York City neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and in Columbia, South Carolina.
“For the modern Habsburgs,” the archduke said in a telephone interview, “the importance of who your wife is is more about whom you have fallen in love with than how they fit into the aristocratic family.”
That he is an archduke rather than a count reflects his family’s shift. In the past, he would have lost his title for his marriage, but now he and his wife have kept it and are presented in family gatherings as such.
“The family modernized its rules to survive,” he added.
He and his wife are not the only mixed-race couple. The archduke’s brother married a Sudanese woman, and other European royals with black spouses include Prince Maximilian of Liechtenstein, whose wife, Angela Gisela Brown, is an Afro-Panamanian from New York City, and Christian Louis, Baron de Massy of Monaco, who married a Guadeloupian.
The history of black royalty, and of race itself, may be more complicated than contemporary mythology would suggest. One historian theorizes that Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III (who ruled England from 1760 to 1820) was the descendant of a Portuguese royal family with African ancestry. He also suggests that Alessandro de Medici, the 16th-century duke whose progeny inhabits royal houses across Europe, was mixed race.
And black women have, of course, married African aristocracy for millenniums and continue to do so.
The fact that those unions are not celebrated with such fanfare was not lost on critics. They noted that the progeny of an empire that transported Africans as chattel and occupied broad swaths of the Continent as a colonial power was being celebrated for marrying a person whose ancestors it likely subjugated.
But the vision of a black princess is alluring because it supplies a bit of escapism. African-American women still face a number of ills: We are more likely to have suffered from depression than white women but less likely to be treated for it, more likely to die from cervical cancer and less likely to find our Prince Charming through dating apps, according to OKCupid.
The hunger for a black princess was only partly sated by fictional characters like Princess Tiana, the Disney character; Nella the Princess Knight, the biracial Nick Jr. character; and Lisa McDowell, the character who would go on to marry the prince of Zamunda in “Coming to America.” Even the show “Scandal,” in which Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, the daughter of a man so powerful that he controls the rulers of nations, is a royal drama delivered in the trappings of modern American life.
So is princessing all it’s cracked up to be? Lei von Habsburg, the American archduchess who married into Austrian-Hungarian aristocracy, said that she has a low-key life except for occasional formal large family gatherings in castles throughout Europe. And when she and her husband think of cultural clashes, Thanksgiving is what comes to mind rather than royal etiquette. (At one point, he asked for col-LARD greens, much to her amusement.)
“It’s not an American princess fantasy, but an American opportunity fantasy,” she said of her life. “Sometimes, in our communities, we don’t get across that all children — children of color — have a right to experience everything in the world. If you are standing in a castle at a black-tie affair next to your husband, you belong there.”