The Queen. In addition to the late British sovereign, the words remind me of the Royal Band that honoured Aretha Franklin by playing ”Respect,” her signature hit, outside of Buckingham Palace on the day the vocalist was laid to rest, in 2018.
“A salute from the Queen of England to the Queen of Soul,” a friend later said about the stirring tribute that can be found online.
As was Franklin and untold millions of other Black people, I’m a descendant of Africans who were forcibly removed from their homeland and held in bondage during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. British trading in “human cargo” began in the 1500s and flourished until 1834 when the barbaric practice was banned in most of the Empire’s colonies. Of course, the impact of enslavement continues to diminish the lives of Blacks throughout the African Diaspora.
I’ll leave debates about the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II and the future of King Charles III to others. As for me, I marked the end of the monarch’s 70-year reign by hanging the flag of Botswana in my backyard.
In 1957, Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from Britain. Hence, I was delighted to visit the country — recently celebrated for its dancing pallbearers — during my first trip to the continent, in 1975.
While I’ve yet to visit Botswana, the country has long held special meaning for me because of Bessie Head, a writer with whom I once corresponded.
The mixed-race daughter of a white woman and a Black man, Head was born, in 1937, in a South African mental hospital where her mother was then confined. Placed in foster care immediately after her birth, the future author endured a soul-murdering youth that left her with lifelong emotional scars. Still, Head earned a teaching certificate and joined South Africa’s anti-apartheid campaigns. Threatened by the country’s violent regime, she fled in exile to Botswana, in 1964.
Although burdened by a failed marriage, child-rearing, poverty, alcohol dependency, and chronic depression, Head published several acclaimed works including A Question of Power (1973) and The Collector of Treasures and other Botswana Village Tales (1977).
“Before the colonial invasion of Africa [we] lived by the traditions and taboos outlined for all the people by the tribe,” notes the narrator of the title story in the latter volume. “The colonial era broke the hold of the ancestors.”
I was introduced to the writings of Bessie Head, in the early 1980s, by another author who praised her fiction as an “antidote to suicide.” Likewise impressed by Head’s courageous work and gifted with her address in Botswana, I mailed her a “thank you” letter. In return, she dispatched a lengthy, typewritten missive (on onion skin paper) that I treasure as a keepsake. She died in 1986.
Botswana had claimed its independence from Britain, in 1966. The simple light blue national flag of the country boasts a black stripe framed in white. As such, it stands in contrast to other African flags that feature colours of the country’s ruling political party or the red, black, and green hues of the Pan-African movement.
Instead, the Botswana flag symbolizes the solidarity of the Black and European people who live peacefully in the country and the importance of water in the Kalahari Desert-encircled terrain. Indeed, the blue field of the flag also references “Pula,” the motto of Botswana and a common greeting that means “Let there be rain.”
Legend has it that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Prince Harry and Meghan Markle), chose Pula as the moniker for one of their dogs. This, a nod to their romance that reportedly blossomed during a 2016 sojourn in Botswana. “We camped out with each other under the stars,” Prince Harry later said.
As I watched — in small doses — press coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the pageantry evoked memories of a scene I witnessed nearly 30 years ago.
I was standing at an intersection in a modest enclave outside of San Francisco. As I waited for the red light to change so that I could cross the street, a gleaming, cream-coloured Rolls Royce slowly passed me by. Slack-jawed, I locked eyes with a Black girl, the lone passenger in a back seat about the size of a fancy hotel lobby.
The famous photo of Ruby Bridges taken on the day she integrated a school in New Orleans, offers readers a sense of the child I saw nestled in the Rolls. That is to say, she was regular. Decades later, I still wonder about the girl. “Who was she?” “Where was she going?” “Who was driving the car?”
I’ll likely never know. What I do know is that Cherica Haye, a British textile artist of African ancestry designed the interior of a custom Phantom Rolls Royce that was unveiled at the 2015 Geneva International Motor Show. Upholstered with raw silk that Haye crafted into Japanese floral motifs, the vehicle bedazzled attendees at the vaunted automotive event.
Propelled by the intersections of royalty (inherited and conferred), the history of British colonialism, the complex lives of Black women, and luxury cars, I recently purchased a two-toned Rolls Royce. Its factory designated colours? Young Burgundy and Silversand.
To be clear: It’s a toy. Set against these fraught times, regular has its privileges.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.