#OprahMeghanHarry - A fatal blow against the culture of silence
I stayed up.
There was work in the morning, but I stayed up. I had an event to get to. #OprahMeghanHarry. 2am to 4am WAT.
A media legend, the most vilified woman in the world, and a much beloved prince. Three earthly Titans talking private things. Palace secrets, spoken out of the dark into the light. I had to be there, to hear firsthand what would be said. To wait till dawn would be to hear the story from the mouth of another, tainted with the distinct flavour of their saliva.
I wanted it fresh, as unprocessed as I could get it. I stayed up. I watched it live.
There is little to say about Meghan neé Markle that hasn’t already been said. Over the past five years, we’ve heard it all, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unforgivable. From everyone, Serena Williams to Piers Morgan. Opinions floating in the wind, words on newspapers. She was somehow the 21st century, diversity bringing, modernity ensuing saviour of the British Monarchy, but also its greatest villain, making Kate neé Middleton cry, eating human right abuse, drought and murder fuelling avocados. The only thing missing from the narrative of her was her, her voice.
Our voices are powerful, particularly when they speak about the subject they know best, ourselves. Before she married Harry, she’d been alive. Acting, interacting with the world at large, at her own direction. She needed no-one to tell her ‘do this’, or ‘do that’, and if anyone said ‘do this’, or do that, she could tell them to get out.
Agency, the power to make our own choices. If there is a price, we pay it. If it is death, it is our death, and then we choose to die. That’s agency. She’d had a lot of it. She’d been an actress, a waitress, a model, an activist, married, divorced… but that changed when she met the man she calls her love, Prince Harry.
There’s a song I quite enjoy. It is called Needle. It is by a group called Born Ruffians. It begins with the following words:
“I belong to no one,
like the watermelon,
rolling with momentum,
spitting out its seeds…
I belong to no one,
a song without an album;
long forgotten maxim
spoken to the sea.”
Life, for most of us, is like this, like the watermelon, rolling with our own momentum, spitting out our own seeds. The same is not true for Prince Harry and others in his family. He does not belong to himself. He belongs to his country, the United Kingdom. His family members, too. They do not have the luxury of having a unique identity. They must adjust themselves, adapt to other’s ideas of who they should be. Sometimes, they do it in sweeping pivots, and at other times, they do it in tiny, barely perceptible movements. Because they do not belong to themselves, but to their country, they are slaves to public opinion. They spent centuries handing over their power, bit by bit, small piece by big piece, to the extent that they no longer remember how to be people. They do not have a voice, their voice is the most reasonable, most tolerable average of the raging cacophony of their subjects. Any bits of themselves they reveal that stretch beyond this average are criticised and vilified, sandpaper whittling down extremes of individuality to the tolerable centre.
They belong to everyone; they are not the song, but the album. Individual songs can be shifted around on the album, some may even be thrown in the bin, no longer fit for purpose, but the album must remain.
Harry understood this. It was his life. He was raised to think of his sovereign, his grandmother, first, and his father second, and his brother third. We came to know this as his duty, and it would have remained so if he had not married who he married.
Marriage changes a man. Before my brother got married, he was mine. My interests lay at the centre of his imagination. When he thought of himself and what he might do with his life, I was there, front and centre, but when he got married, this changed. I slipped down the ladder of his heart and his duty. Instead of thinking of our mother, our father or me, he thought of her, his wife. They made a vow in front of us, for better or worse, till death do we part. The vow, in my mind, was a severance. Any secrets we once shared, any pacts we made, were now secondary to that which he’d made to his wife. The eldest eagle had flown the nest and set up his own on a nearby tree. However close that tree was, it wouldn’t be my tree.
Being Nigerian is an interesting thing. We have our traditions and our values and our culture, but we do not truly know how much of it is ours, original, and how much of it is that of our colonisers, the British. When they colonised us, there was a lot that was lost.
With the royal family, the sequence of events isn’t the same as it is in my family. The eagle finds another eagle, and they set up a nest in the family home. The foreign eagle becomes bound by the family’s rules. Their independence, their agency, is whittled down until they become one of the family. The sand papering is done through cruelty and hazing. The ease of assimilation is dependent on how similar the eagle is to the nest’s inhabitants or on any passing whim that blows through the nest that day.
We saw this with Princess Diana when she began to assert herself. We loved her as a person, an individual, but when looked at in the context of her position in the Royal Family, we did our best to haze her to compliance. And when she left it, the family, we hazed her for daring to reject us. We did the same to Sarah Ferguson. And then we did it to Meghan. In Nigeria, families — not mine! — do this to the women who marry into them. It is why Nigerian women in my mother’s generation empathised with Princess Diana to the point of sisterhood. It is why Nigerian women in my generation have made a role model of Meghan. As the global power of the United Kingdom has waned, so too has its hold on our culture. We have softened the stiff upper lip. We do not grin and bear it. We do not keep calm and carry on. We do as we like, and heaven forbid you tell us otherwise, more American in thought and in action than we’ve ever been. Free thinkers, free doers, raging against the machine that enables us, that empowers us, disrupters, productive agents of chaos. We say to ourselves, this is the world we live in. It is racist, it is sexist, it is xenophobic, and it is homophobic. It is unkind, and it is unfair. We did not make it this way, but you cannot expect us to live in it and not complain.
You did not need to hear Meghan say she’d been suicidal to know it. There’s a look. It’s in the eyes, it’s in the mouth, it’s everywhere. All who have suffered similarly know it. The mask that hides the depression, the loneliness, the desire to end everything. I saw it first when Tom Bradby asked her, “are you okay.” The mask slipped. She talked around it for the most part, but when it came down to it, when he prodded. “No. It’s been a struggle” She said.
Those words were the signpost to the events that followed. When we do not speak about what we are enduring, the things we’re going through, we’re effectively saying that we’re prepared to continue with things as they are. But the moment we say something, the moment we give voice to our pain, there’s only one way forward, action. The couple came back from their tour of South Africa in October 2019 and sued The Mail on Sunday and the MailOnline for breaches of privacy. On the 8th of January the following year, they announced their intention to step back as senior members of the Royal Family. They’d decided that they would not endure, that they would not keep calm and carry on. That Meghan did this was not surprising, it was half expected, after all she’d been herself, she’d been her own woman, with her own agency, her own identity. She wasn’t going to shut up and take it. That her husband followed, in support, in solidarity, was. Marriage had changed him.
I stayed up to watch that interview, knowing what I would hear, knowing what would be said. There was a bit of me that thought Harry and Meghan had been indulgent. That thought they should have known the horrors that lay ahead of them, and that because of their knowledge, there should have been no sorrow, and no need for my empathy or my pity. But those two things, my empathy, and my pity were there all the same. What a lot to go through in not-a-lot of time. And then my anger bled into the mix of feelings. So what if that’s how things were done? So what if this is how things are? There is only one question that matters, is this how things should be? And if the answer is no, the least we can do is complain.
A legendary broadcaster, a popular recently awokened prince and the world’s most divisive woman spoke for 50 minutes. Three earthly giants talking private things, ordinary things, secret things. A family’s drama played out on the global scene, beamed from house to house, over signals and waves. I stayed up, fought sleep, and sacrificed my productivity the next day, a monday, to see it but it was worth it. It isn’t very often that we get to watch culture change in real time. Once upon a time, princes and princesses in big palaces weren’t allowed to complain to the less privileged about their struggles or their difficulties. But under attack from skilled storytellers Meghan and Harry, steered by Oprah, a most persuasive editor, the culture of silence around mental illness and racism has suffered a fatal blow.