I still remember the elation so many of us experienced at the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It was as clear a sensation of collective progress as I’ve ever felt. That elation was followed by a sincere but tremendously short-lived faith in the possibility of a postracial society in America and Europe (remember the crowds in Berlin?), the nonfulfillment of which has led to a kind of deep melancholy about the power—and inevitable limitations—of symbols. So what if the president of the United States was black, today’s conventional wisdom reminds us, when the forces of racism and xenophobia continue to rise all around us?
I am not immune to such skepticism. But the news coming out of England on Monday gave me a jolt of that former optimism. The idea that Prince Harry, the son of the future king of England, is engaged to a (“mixed”) black American woman, setting up the possibility that as-yet unborn members of the royal family, direct descendants of the king, will themselves be mixed, and therefore descendants of slaves—something in this vision genuinely moved me.
Journalist Yashar Ali tweeted: “This engagement is really quite extraordinary…. This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago … perhaps even 10 years ago.”
It was in many ways unthinkable until the day it happened. The cliché that it’s simultaneously the best and worst of times does justice to the contemporary moment. But if we can avert the worst disasters, it sometimes really does feel as though we just might be able to do this.