“My mother couldn’t believe the Queen’s hats. My mother disliked birds and hats.” Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand, 1953. Licensed under CC0 2.0.
When the Queen of Tuvalu died, I remembered.
My parents were pleased that at ten years old I liked Mark Twain. And then they discovered that, as with Cleo the Talking Dog five years earlier, I would not move on from The Prince and the Pauper. I wasn’t interested in any other non-school book. I’d seen the film of Twain’s novel and Errol Flynn had the right to sit in my presence every week when I reread my favorite parts. Tom Sawyer? Any luckily orphaned boy princes? No? Then no thanks.
My mother had purchased from a door-to-door salesman in 1958 our 1957 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia. We never owned another set. My knowledge of the world came from our ever more out-of-date encyclopedia. My science is still very Sputnik-era. I let the twenty-four taped, dogged volumes go with much regret in 2009 after my parents died. As I was tiring of Twain’s lookalike boys and their protector, Miles Hendon, I found in the encyclopedia a black-and-white illustration of a painting of two princes in dark clothes. They had light long hair and looked scared. Princes were unlucky. I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. I longed to be unlucky. The two brothers were in a place with a dark staircase called the Tower of London. And, yes, the L volume of our encyclopedia set had so much on London, headed by a drawing of really old London dominated by “S. Pauwls Church.” I studied the narrow houses packed around it. My father couldn’t tell me for sure what “eel ships” were, but they were the largest vessels on the river in the drawing. So that’s where my nursery rhyme jumble of “all fall down” came from.
(When did I come across the drawing that had the Globe Theatre marked in it and London Bridge full of houses over the “Thames fluuius”? Much later, when Shakespeare’s history plays were still way over my head.)
I looked up stuff in the encyclopedia and in volume E I learned the counties of England from a map. England was superimposed over the state of Alabama to show how small the realm was. I tried to learn the list of English kings and queens going back to Alfred, but names before the Tudors (“To doors,” like “to arms,” I said, before I learned “two doors”) were hard. I looked up whatever I hadn’t heard of before. Sometimes the encyclopedia let me down.
Then in February of 1964 came The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the British pop invasion. (Everything is on YouTube now, including an audio recording of the Beatles concert I went to at the Indiana State Fair cow barn in September of 1964. The screaming.) Fan magazines about The Beatles were supplemented by expensive and out-of-date copies of The Illustrated London News, which I begged my parents for on Sundays when they went downtown to the newspaper store across from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Circle.
I was twelve years old when I first heard the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a Saturday morning in 1965 and instead of cartoons or Little Rascals films on television, there was a broadcast of a memorial being dedicated to the late President Kennedy at Runnymede. I learned then what the Magna Carta was. My mother mocked the Queen’s accent: “Efrika.” When had the Queen talked about Africa?
In 1965, I got up real early to watch the funeral of Winston Churchill. “I Vow to Thee, My Country” brought me to tears. I’d never heard “My Country ’Tis of Thee” sung as “God Save the Queen.” To add to my illustrated histories of great European military battles, I wanted coffee-table publications about Churchill. It was just a hobby, a history buff–type project, but then my family became alarmed when I insisted to my older sister that she must have meant Wat Tyler, who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and marched on London. No, Watts. California. Los Angeles. Black people. Riots. What else had I missed or failed to take in? Around the dinner table, my mother and my sisters thought I was hilarious. Except black people had been killed during Watts, my father said, very serious.
To fall in love with Great Expectations at the new “white” school was fine, but my parents were offended when a history teacher told them how astonished he’d been when he began to recite in class “They came three thousand miles and died…” and I finished the stanza. (We’d been to Concord, Massachusetts. I had a little replica of the Grave of British Soldiers with that verse on it.) My parents did not like it when white people were surprised that black people knew anything. Maybe my parents’ ambivalence about my out-of-nowhere Anglophilia began then. It was a joke, distasteful to them, but then I could beat white people at their own game with it.
I’d never been into sports and my father had played football for Fisk until he was kicked out for calling his French teacher queer. Maybe it had been a little weird when I got caught experimenting on my feet with my mother’s nail polish at a school friend’s when he burst in to tell me that somebody had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald on television. I was put in the special squad for sissies and fat boys at the new “white” school. In those days of vinyl, I had a record of historic speeches that I still listened to a lot after school. “This is Windsor Castle, His Royal Highness, Prince Edward.” I didn’t understand what was the constitutional impossibility that had kept Edward VIII from speaking before this broadcast, but I responded to the dramatic flummery of his self-pity: “… and to discharge my duties as king as I [eye-ya] would wish to do … of the British race …” (Race?) Unlucky kings were another matter.
A known closet case to myself, my Anglophilia blossomed into a private gay culture. I’d not heard of Oscar Wilde but in 1969 when I was sixteen and locking every door behind me, I had no need of him. I’d discovered the House of Stuart. Flame on.
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser and The First Churchills on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and the BBC documentary The Royal Family and the broadcast of the investiture of the Prince of Wales—one great vanilla mound of unlucky princes with Her Majesty the faultless berry on top. My mother said, Yuck. My mother and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year. My mother couldn’t believe the Queen’s hats. My mother disliked birds and hats. She was always in favor of missing church, except on holidays. A bow and a bit of veil. Her imitation of the Queen’s voice was a high, squeezed little pipe. I said “liege man” and my mother said “liege man my foot.” I moved on to the Hanovers. The high school bookstore had stuff in it like Elizabeth Longford’s biography of Queen Victoria.
My father put on his serious voice. He had avoided the army for as long as he could, because he and his friends at Morehouse had had no wish to fight for the British Empire or the French Empire, for that matter. My Anglo-American version of history went something like the House of Hapsburg with its weird chins degenerated and a son of the French House of Bourbon became King of Spain in 1700, provoking the thirteen-year War of the Spanish Succession. By the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain had lost the Netherlands and its possessions in Italy, but at the same time immigration from Spain to its colonies in Central America, Latin America, and South America was at its height. The populations there had already started dying, as soon as the Europeans brought diseases. I saw footnotes but did not read accounts from the Spanish conquests. Anyway, Spain kept going downhill in the Anglo version of its history and was a husk of an empire that fell apart in the nineteenth century.
Before Pearl Harbor, lots of black people, Langston Hughes among them, had regarded Japan as the non-white empire that would counter European power in the Pacific. My father said he was not one of them. He got sent to Italy, a beautiful country, but the poverty he saw in Naples was worse than anything he’d come across in Georgia. The locals attacked black soldiers who they thought were after Italian women. Protestant conquest of the globe was different in my Anglo-American version, obeying as it did the imperatives of trade, capital, and progress. Trade. Yes, that commodity, human beings. There had been some debate among their captors as to whether or not slaves—as we said and as history books also said when I was in high school—should be baptized. Maybe the villain is conquest in the name of monotheism. Spain and France never had the large abolitionist movements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and the United States. Most of the captured and imprisoned Africans were transported to lands controlled by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people, not to those lands squatted by England.
My father tried again. These people do not care about us. But I knew from The British Overseas by C. E. Carrington that during the War of 1812 the slaves, as we said then, ran off to the British lines, because they would be free and sent to Nova Scotia. My father put on his don’t-hand-me-that face, but it was too late. I wanted buckles on my shoes and ruffles on my cuffs. I wrote “Sonnets Written in Dejection near Indianapolis.”
Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, danced in Accra in 1961 with Queen Elizabeth, Head of the British Commonwealth, to a specially composed highlife tune, “Welcome, Your Majesty.” That was the year, 1961, that I took my first plane ride. My mother wore gloves and a hat. Life went on after the World Book Encyclopedia of 1957. The Queen‘s prince consort, happy as his Frankish ancestors, danced with Ghana’s Egyptian-born first lady. Black women were crowded around to check out the smooth moves of the dancers and one pretty spectacular diamond tiara. I’d seen a photograph and read the caption. Among the Zande, the Queen was given the name Naingitere. The name means “she who flies high in the sky with a white smoke.” The Queen owned a plane. Naingitere could be given only to a girl child with the characteristics of a ruler. Such were chosen by the deity to rule.
I lied and said I was going to London with a school group. High school graduation present, 1971. My father had probably guessed that this was a solo flight, because he slipped some of his condoms—they came in little blue plastic containers of wet—into my shaving kit. I was unaware for a week and then paid it no mind for days that I’d brought my Afroed head of every obtuseness to a London that belonged not to the Queen’s men, but to Enoch Powell. Shit happened.
Darryl Pinckney’s memoir, Come Back in September, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the fall.
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