The first time I saw my grandma cry was when a news anchor said Princess Diana of Wales had been killed in a car accident. With one hand covering her mouth, and the other placed on the television remote (as if she had any intention of changing the channel), my grandmother let tears stream down her face in a way that frightened me. We were not British. Princess Diana wasn’t our princess. The United States didn’t have princesses. We definitely weren’t related to her. Still, somehow, the women in my family all went into a kind of mourning after her death, especially my grandmother. My entire life she had loved reading about Princess Diana and discussing the woman’s life with her friends over the phone.
“Girl, Charles had been messing with Camilla, then tried to get mad when Diana didn’t want to stick around? Tuh! I wish I would.”
I only ever got my grandma’s half of the conversation while we sat in the kitchen, but it was always gratifying. My grandmother loved celebrity gossip, and picked up the newest tabloids whenever we went to the grocery store. She taught me to read using those very tabloids, and The Bible. I knew more about the marital woes of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, not to mention those of Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, than any 5-year-old kid should. I also knew who Princess Diana was, and what she looked like. I have memories of seeing her over and over on the best-dressed pages of those magazines. She looked nice enough to me, if a little shy. I liked that. I liked that someone as beautiful as she was still always looked a little out of place, and a little unsure. It made her seem more human than the others. But it still didn’t explain why the women in my life were so obsessed with her.
And they weren’t the only ones: When H&S Media put out a memorial magazine issue after the death of Princess Diana, it sold half a million copies in just seven days after hitting newsstands. My grandmother had that magazine, and at least one commemorative plate. So did my grandmother on my father’s side, her mother, and two of my aunts.
My grandma and her friends had no country for Prince Charles, but they spoke about Princes William and Harry as if they were their own grandchildren.
“At least those boys will learn something from her because God knows their daddy don’t care about anybody but his bald self and his snaggle-tooth mistress.”
They worried after “Diana’s boys,” and believed her influence would be the only thing that kept them from being like their father or his mother, both of whom they vehemently disliked (even the pastor’s wife at our church agreed). The accepted narrative for them was that the prince and the queen were the haughty guards of a castle in which they’d confined the sweet Diana, admonished her for wanting to do good in the world, and forcing her to linger in a sham marriage. To these woman, Diana’s divorce was symbol of freedom. They too saw the shy look in the gorgeous woman’s eyes, but they were all older than me (or her). To me, Diana was a beautiful human who seemed to have a good heart. To them, she was a beautiful and trapped child.
Last year, my friend Chaedria and I sat at a coffee shop chatting about our family dynamics. Chaedria is the kind of woman I thought I’d grow up to be. She’s exceedingly intelligent, a world traveler, never in one place for too long, drop dead gorgeous, and unapologetically political. She also happens to exude glamour as if it were any other trait, like curly hair or dark skin. I mentioned growing up surrounded by Black women who were obsessed with Princess Diana and she lit up with a “me too!” After a bit of excited back and forth, I asked what she thought it was: Why did so many older Black women feel so invested in the life and death of Princess Diana?
“You have to think about what she represented,” she explained. “Princess Diana was the first woman to marry into the royal family who had ever had a job before. When her man started cheating on her, she cheated too. She wore clothes that were fashion forward, bright, and glamorous. She didn’t deny the evils or wrongdoing in the world in order to keep up appearances. She stood up for herself. And she did it all without seeming inaccessible or arrogant. Before her, British royalty seemed weird and outdated. She modernised it. And who do you know that thinks of themselves as modern princesses and queens more than Black women that age? The church hats alone tell the truth.”
I’d never questioned whether my grandmother or her friends really loved Diana, but up until Chaedria made her point, I certainly questioned why so many of them loved a white blonde woman who wasn’t even the princess of our country. It seemed strange and unlikely, and yet, it was everywhere. After my grandmother cried about Princess Diana’s passing, she walked to the phone and called each of her daughters and friends, one by one, to lament. “Damn shame,” she muttered into the phone over and over again.
Even the pastor spoke about Diana’s death in our church service the following Sunday, and I saw more than a few older Black women my grandmother’s age wipe away their tears as he spoke. They’d all cared for her and her boys. They were all terrified that the queen and the prince they knew little about would wipe Diana’s loving influence from her children’s hearts. These women still love Diana and her boys. Princess Diana represented a break from the traditional, the boring, and the purposefully unconscious. She may have been flawed in many ways, certainly in ways we’ll never know, but she was The Princess the people wanted. And at least among the women I knew, The Princess they chose to love.
I still don’t have a definitive reason why the older Black women in and around my life loved Diana so much. I asked my mother and she said, “I think we could see the pain in her spirit, and it spoke to us. Also we all knew what it was like to deal with a man who wasn’t worth a damn.” Coming home on the train not too long ago, I saw an older Black woman reading a special issue of People about Diana. I asked her what made her buy that particular magazine. “She deserved more. She had everything in a way, but not the most important things, and she knew that. They had her up in that castle begging her to pretend everything was okay, in her marriage and the world, but she didn’t,” she said. Then she returned to her magazine, smiling, and turned another page.
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