Poise and Dignity: Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Should we mourn someone who was the head of a very hegemonic, unjust institution that controlled so much of the developing world, and that holds a disproportionate amount of wealth today? A monarchy that is so linked to colonialism, slavery, and inequality? Someone who is still a polarizing figure not only in the Commonwealth and developing countries, but in her own country (there are many republicans, a word which means something entirely different in the UK.)

And yet, something must be said, because her passing cannot go without comment. In a world where oversharing is the norm, social media takes precedence over all forms of communication, and individualism is a driving force in how people live their lives, there was one woman who quietly went about her business without complaint and with an even temperament because she knew it was her duty: Queen Elizabeth II. What can be said about this great lady that hasn’t been said already? What can we learn from a woman who was nearly 100 years old and of a very different generation, who admittedly struggled to deal with emotional situations, especially related to family? And who was the elite of the elite, wealthy beyond belief, and royal?

-Change with the times. This might sound ironic, because in many ways, the queen was resistant to change and valued tradition over trends. However, she chose subtle ways to adapt within the framework of the institution and her culture. She had to become a media presence. She dismantled her empire. Her children adopted lifestyles and mores that were radically different from her own conservative Christian ones influenced by the Church of England. Her grandsons married true commoners who came from ordinary working families, with ancestry that included lower income people. And yet she was still the Queen, upholding the traditions of centuries, even a millennium.

-Embrace different people. It is well known that the queen cared deeply about the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were former colonies, the majority of which were not white. Nelson Mandela even had a special nickname for her, and the two were on a first name basis. She even broke protocol to reciprocate when Michelle Obama placed her hand on her back, as she was very fond of the groundbreaking First Lady. There is no question that much of the world is still recovering from centuries of British colonialism (the Partition was one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, in my opinion), and that many despise the British Monarchy. And she was not fond of Diana’s heart-on-her-sleeve approach to connecting with everyone, did not have the Princess of Wales’s connection with all the marginalized groups in society (who loved Diana dearly). But we cannot overlook the individual and how she had a personal rapport with many that her class (including her own mother) deemed unsuitable. She came from a society that was extremely racist, whose roots were connected to colonialism and slavery, and the current royals must move forward with making reparations.

-Do your work. Elizabeth’s steady, dutiful personality never wavered. It was extremely rare, almost unheard of, for the queen to miss her engagement. She never appeared fatigued, she treated everyone kindly, maintained a sense of cheer, and traveled extensively in the UK and around the world. She worked into her 90s–a rare feat for anyone, given that most people retire in their mid-60s, and do not survive to their 100thdecade. We have no idea what health problems she suffered throughout her lifetime, or her personal struggles. All we know is that she took her job seriously, through ups and downs, even when it was not a job she should have had. She was very fair to her staff, remembering their names and details about them. It is of note that she would have had a tremendous knowledge of- and insight into 20th and 21st century British history and politics, given her weekly audiences with prime ministers. She put duty and the institution above her personal life and expected others to do so.

-Maintain a sense of humor. By all accounts from people who met her, the queen was incredibly funny. She never took herself seriously, though she took her job seriously. When someone in a shop once commented that she resembled the Queen, she commented, “I find that rather assuring.” Recent years saw her willing to entertain the crowds by appearing with James Bond in her entrance to attending the London Olympics, and the recent, brilliantly funny video of her having tea with Paddington Bear before the Jubilee.

-Love animals and nature. Those who knew her well have said that were she not queen, she would simply have been a country lady, living at her manor, tending to her horses and dogs and plants. Her infamous corgis surrounded her throughout her life, and she had a deep interest in the plants and flowers and trees at her residences. Though her lifestyle was undoubtedly beyond extravagant, her own pleasures were fairly simple. 

-Maintain a sense of composure and mystery. Even when an intruder snuck into her bedroom, the Queen had enough sangfroid not to panic. She never gave interviews, save once, and she rarely revealed things about herself in public. These are characteristics that were typical of her class, and hence why she clashed with Diana, to whom she was sometimes unsympathetic. She kept herself on an even keel, much like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a figurehead, not a best friend. Even her dress sense, which was sometimes dowdy and outdated for modern times, featured simple cuts and bright colors so she could be seen. Perhaps it is this very British upper-class sense of “good breeding” that many Americans find so appealing (hence the popularity TV shows and movies about the English aristocracy.)

There are many things to criticize about the Queen, no question. She was not the warmest of mothers and could not understand emotional needs in her sons and daughters in law, or in her family. Sometimes she was out of touch with the zeitgeist of a decade. But even the staunchest Republicans and anti-monarchists cannot fail to respect the late Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level, for there were very few people like her in the recent decades or century. As an individual, a working professional, she was remarkable.

He Had a Dream… For You

Monday January 21 marked a historic event, the annual commemoration and 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the inauguration for the 2nd term of our 1st Black president, Barack Obama, who (as you might expect) gave a wonderful speech with his usual eloquence. Also impressive were the crowds who turned out to see him. People of all backgrounds, races, nationalities. It’s one of the strengths of our country, the tremendous diversity we have. Obama’s speech reflected this, citing various civil rights milestones and promises to ensure that the fundamental freedoms by our Founding Fathers continue to be granted to everyone. These are indeed themes that Dr. King addressed in his famous speech 5 decades ago.

But what of the people who now take freedom for granted? What of those people who have no idea, no clue about the efforts of the valiant civil rights activists who brought about these tremendous changes in American society? In particular, the immigrants who have come here and prospered, the ones who really know very little about Dr. King and his brothers and sisters, without whom they would not be in this country?

Let us first speak in defense of the newly immigrated. Survival is the number 1 priority. Finding a job, finding housing, learning the language (in some cases), feeding one’s family, taking care of the children, adapting to a new culture—-the list goes on. The reasons for which people have immigrated to the US are as diverse and varied as the citizens of this country. In some cases, it is politics. In others, economics. Perhaps some people are joining their families, whereas others are leaving their families behind. Even after decades, sometimes immigrants have not adapted well, and still struggle with life in the United States, missing their homelands and all they have left behind. Sometimes this process continues for more than one generation, as the children inherit the difficulties of their parents.

These are all extremely valid and important issues in the life of an immigrant, things that cannot be denied. But are these things mutually exclusive from maintaining a grateful attitude and having a healthy curiosity about the history that enabled so many people to immigrate to the United States? What I attack is apathy: apathy that is born of ignorance, blind prejudice against particular racial groups (read: Black/African-American), insularity, sticking only to one’s kind, and a sense of entitlement. You think the civil rights movement was simply something that happened 50 years ago? Something to give you a day off from school or work, and something for the kids to learn about at school? Think again.

Especially if you are a non-white, prosperous immigrant, living in your wealthy suburb or ethnic enclave—-Fremont, California, perhaps, or Houston, Texas, or Flushing, New York—-riding to the shopping mall or your ethnic grocery in your large SUV or luxury vehicle, going to your house of worship, spending hours at your office earning a six-figure salary, gathering with your friends and watching the latest video clips from your home country, YOU HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE GRATEFUL TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Do you know anything about the Selma to Montgomery marches that now enable you to have the right to vote (if you actually vote at all)? Are you aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by the great Mohandas K. Gandhi when he led African-Americans in acts of civil disobedience? Do you know that “colored” people had to drink from separate water fountains, as you sit sipping your latte at your Starbucks surrounded by people of all nationalities? As you fight to get your child into a great public school or university so you don’t have to pay exorbitant private fees, are you aware that the Little Rock Nine had to be escorted by the National Guard to enter their school that was newly desegregated? How about those white Freedom Riders who risked their lives for people of a different color, because they felt the call of justice so strongly? As you debate about whether or not to return to your home country because it is prospering too, and you can have daily maid service, do you know that there were strict immigration quotas in the 1960s to avoid “too many of your kind”? And as you angrily scold your son wearing baggy pants with the crotch hanging down to his knees in “ghetto style,” do you stop for a moment to think how much your existence is owed to the Civil Rights Movement, to all the African-Americans who fought, sacrificed, endured hardship, and even lost their lives so that yours could be comfortable?

We might still be light years off with accomplishing all the goals that the Civil Rights Movement set out to accomplish. We might still be dealing with discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and a whole host of racially based evils. But it is of utmost importance to live mindfully as immigrants, to take just a moment out of the day to practice gratitude for those who have paved your way. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream—-and you are living it.

(And yes, those baggy pants with the crotch down to the knees are most unbecoming. Even Dr. King would have said so.)

Mama Africa

This post is a sort of counterpoint to the previous one, I suppose. A couple of years back, in order to get myself out of a bad mood, I decided to search online for some information related to poverty, as my status as a well-educated American is certainly a very enviable one, globally speaking. I happened upon some Human Development Index (HDI) charts, and they brought me to tears. At the bottom of the list were the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. I think Niger was at the bottom of the list. And it struck me, as it has struck me many times before—–
Why is it that the darker the skin, the poorer the man?
Why is it that the poorest countries have the darkest-skinned people? Or,
Why is it that, in every country (even in populations where everyone is dark-skinned), the poorest people or the people at the bottom of society are the most dark?

The negative effects of this are numerous. Not only is there the obvious issue of racial discrimination, but also issues of public health, education, political access, and economics. The causes are also numerous: colonialism, capitalism gone wild, internal strife/civil war, the interaction of genetics and culture (social Darwinism), the caste system (in India; caste means “color,” but it also relates to labor and one’s particular social group). People of non-white cultures will most certainly freely admit that there is discrimination among them, and lighter-skinned people are considered “better.”

But when this issue is on such a continental scale, when the poorest nations are all centered on one continent, one cannot help but ask why this is so, and why more effective efforts are not being done? What is it about the intertwining of capitalism and race that has led to such social stratification? One person alone cannot provide all the answers; even governments and institutions struggle with this and have been struggling with this for centuries.

Perhaps part of it begins with those of us in the developed world examining our perceptions, or shall we say, misperceptions of Africa as all one monolithic place. The continent is a conglomeration of many races, religions, languages, and cultures. Over 50 countries comprise the continent countries which can be perceived as various regions, such as Egypt and the Maghreb (the Muslim north); the Saharan countries which are so sparsely populated and often nomadic; Western Africa, from where American blacks trace their ancestry, with oil-rich Nigeria; the cradle of human origins in Eastern Africa, mountainous regions as well as plains; Central Africa, former colonies which are still undergoing much political strife as well as being developed for harvesting natural resources, and the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Southern Africa with its ever-continuing legacy of European settlers and high rates of AIDS. These are but crass generalizations, but it is imperative that people see Africa as a continent with great diversity connected through geography, history, and, sadly, poverty and a lack of development.

It is not simply fashionable, leftist rhetoric to raise these questions and correlate poverty with skin color; the statistics speak for themselves. This is the beauty of the social sciences, to be able to connect theories about society with the hard data that backs it up. We must examine the manifestations of poverty in each of our societies and communities in which we live. We must be willing to ask the hard questions and examine the hard answers. Yes, it may be ugly. But so is the reality that billions of people all over the world, not just in Africa, are facing.