My mother, now a New Yorker, grew up speaking the Queen’s English. Her father was an Anglophile who excelled as a lawyer in a British legal system. He dressed in tweed jackets, drank tea with milk and smoked a pipe. He also supported the resistance movement, leaving everything behind in Jallander (now India) to migrate to Lyallpur (now Pakistan) when dissolution of the British Raj created new political boundaries and national identities.
This duality of craving independence while honoring the monarchy runs deep in the former colonies.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the last monarch overseeing the British colonial project, my 73-year-old mother says she only feels sadness — at the passage of time, the change of tradition and the loss of what she knew as civility and grace.
It’s a grief felt here in America, with President Joe Biden saying the queen “defined an era…in a world of constant change, she was a steadying presence.” Kind words from a fellow head of state. But there is a cognitive dissonance in hearing the queen venerated by everyday Americans who call themselves patriots and normally shout about freedom. This duality of craving independence while honoring the monarchy runs deep in the former colonies.
The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II will be held at Westminster Abbey on Monday, Sept. 19 at 6 a.m. ET. Follow our live blog for expert analysis and takeaways at msnbc.com/royalfuneral.
In her 70-year reign, Queen Elizabeth saw the last brutal gasps of colonial oppression, with British soldiers on three continents trying to maintain an imperial government formed in her name. The queen was the last vestige of a British Empire that stole from my ancestors and broke the sub-continent into pieces. Following her death, fellow millennials of South Asian descent refer to the crown jewels on Twitter, asking, “Can we get the Koh-i-Noor back now?”
The British left their last colonial outpost in Yemen in 1965. As recently as 2020, countries continued to gain independence, with Barbados formally rejecting the queen as head of state and removing her statue from public squares. For millions upon millions of Black and brown people, the queen was the symbol of historic oppression. Yet 54 former colonies opt to remain part of the Commonwealth, sharing similar systems of education (O level comes before A), sports (cricket is a bug), and lingo (try complimenting someone’s pants).
By contrast, my native country revolted against the monarchy more than 200 years ago. We now venerate those rebels as founding fathers. Rejecting a sovereign is an essential part of American political identity. When a letter encouraged George Washington to become king, the war hero admonished the writer to “banish these thoughts from your mind,” calling the monarchy “the greatest mischief that can befall my country.” The founders’ shortcomings may be glossed over in lesson plans and musicals, with minimal reckoning of their hypocrisy on slavery, but the legend of America always keeps true to the idea of rejecting hereditary rule. Yet in the generations to follow, the colonizer and onetime colony join together to form the backbone of a liberal world order, their special relationship shaping the world in countless ways throughout the 20th century.
The constant of an unchanging, steady monarch soothes those who fear and resist the changes of the 21st century. The people of the Greatest Generation, memorialized as stoic heroes who stepped up to save the world from evil in World War II, have passed on. Until Thursday, Queen Elizabeth was the last living head of state to personally serve in World War II. Now countries are led by a younger, more diverse cohort that has no living connection to that specific sense of historic greatness.
In the refrains of Make America Great Again, we hear the siren call of monarchy
We hear this sense of loss reflected in American political rhetoric today, the yearning for an idealized time when people had grit, understood sacrifice and knew their place in a segregated society. In the refrains of Make America Great Again, we hear the siren call of monarchy: an ideal of white Christian leadership, of benevolent leaders bestowing favors upon the masses, of never letting the sun set on national influence. In increasingly louder tones, we hear about great replacement theory, a call back to the purity of bloodlines and the idea of nobility of birth, not of action. A looming majority-minority population scares people used to holding power, and they express it in their disdain for the family Prince Harry has created for himself. There is no denying this reality: the Queen of England’s eponymous grandchild, Lilibet, carries drops of Blackness in her veins.
What my mother sees as a moment of loss, I see as a moment of becoming. The continuity of history, of language, of identity does not live within one staid symbol or tradition but within the people who carry on the work knitting together a nation. The passing of a leader is not an ending; it is the passing on of ideas and power to younger generations, seeing the nation evolve and grow.
My mother is good at separating institutions and individuals, so she has kinder words to say about events like the death of a queen. She remembers the coronation of Queen Elizabeth as witnessing the moment a young woman honored her duty by stepping up and claiming her place in the world. I only know the coronation from the two of us bingeing on the show "The Crown" together when my first child was born.
We enjoyed the grandeur, the reflection of history, the family tensions in the story. But we knew what we were watching was a beautifully crafted fiction. What we were truly enjoying was the reality of our time together, the chance to stay connected across the generations by nurturing a newborn who will grow up in a multiethnic, English-speaking world tied to the traditions of his ancestors.