BY JEANETTE LENOIR
Ceremony, rank, pedigree, membership of a noble family, values and culture are the statements behind family crest’s, tribal totems, coat of arms and all forms of heraldry. Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and wife of Prince Harry had the distinct privilege to design her own crest or coat of arms when she became a member of the British royal family. This is significant. Here’s why: The practice of this tribal symbolism and identity dates back to the cradle of mankind. A crest is the emblem of a clan or tribe. Although Markle being biracial, a divorcee from America or any other ridiculous disqualifier one may add, shows significant progress as it pertains to tolerance and acceptance at the highest level of society’s totem pole. Creating her own emblem highlights the personal but also our collective legacy as black people. Royalty is not new in African culture but Markle joining the British Royals as a member of their family is progress we can all support, unless you’re a racist witch like Princess Michael of Kent who wore that awful racist brooch to have lunch with Markle. Her statement, using a brooch like First Lady Melania using a jacket, spoke loud and clear.
Although history points us to the medieval times when knights personalized their shields with a coat of arms, the practice actually goes even further. Europeans aren’t the only ones who personalized their clan, family, unit, position or tribe. These kinds of symbolic statements can be traced back to ancient times before the fall of Rome and the birth of the middle ages. Symbolism has always played a vital role in society. There would be no society without symbolism. Human beings and their respective clans have used flags, totems and other forms of tribal and religious heraldry to distinguish themselves from each other since recorded history.
Markle’s crest had me thinking about my own family’s crest or heraldry. Luckily, after going through some family photos I found one. The image is of my great uncle and Paramount Chief of the Pamaka people of Suriname, Grangmang Forster. Pamaka people live on several islands within the country but our main island is Langetabetje. My grandfather, Nikolaas Forster, served as Captain alongside his older brother Grangmang Forster who is holding our tribes symbol or crest in each hand. In one hand he holds a pineapple and in the other a fire breathing dragon. These two symbols are the Pamaka people’s crest. It essentially says; we can either get along, or we can get it on. It represents who we are as a people just like Markle’s crest identifies her family and what she values.
When explorers were sent out during Europe’s great age of discovery they were slow to understand the customs and institutions of the people they came across, explained author Marvin Harris in his book; Cannibals and Kings. He writes, “Although the Europeans exaggerated their “savagery,” the majority of these village communities collected enemy heads as trophies, roasted their prisoners of war alive, and consumed human flesh in ritual feasts. The fact that the “civilized” Europeans also tortured people—in witchcraft trials, for example—and that they were not against exterminating the populations of whole cities should be kept in mind (even if they were squeamish about eating one another). Harris goes on to write, “Explorers encountered fully developed states and empires, headed by despots and ruling classes, and defended by standing armies. It was these great empires, with their cities, monuments, palaces, temples and treasures that had lured all the Marco Polos and Columbuses across the oceans and deserts in the first place.” It’s not hard to surmise what influenced knights to create their own coat of arms. In our modern times this practice would be called cultural appropriation.
From China to India and South America, explorers found a diverse people with their empires and worlds unto themselves, each with distinctive arts, religions and yes, even heraldry. To believe that heraldry, crests or coat of arms are solely a European invention started during the medieval times, is to deny the mere existence of the people they discovered across the oceans, deserts and jungles of the world. Markle’s crest, in many ways, is the return of the rightful royals of the world. A family crest is more than a pretty design, it’s a deep rooted cultural connection to our past and the cradle of mankind’s identity.