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Charlottean Queen: What’s In A Name?by Andrea Long on March 23, 2021
I am that rare, practically mythical creature known as a Charlotte native. I was born in Presbyterian Hospital, received my education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and have lived my entire life here. I’ve never found a compelling reason to move away from the city I love, a place where my roots are deep.
I’ve always loved even the name Charlotte. I went to high school with a girl named Charlotte, and I was envious that she shared her name with our city. I was thrilled when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge named their daughter Charlotte. And I’ve long said that if I ever had to go into the witness protection program, I would choose Charlotte as my new name (which I guess is no longer an option since I’ve blown my cover here.) But how did the city of Charlotte become so?
Who was the original Charlotte, why does our city bear her name and how has her namesake town represented her in art?
Teenage bride, mother, accomplished queen
Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born in Germany in 1744, and at 17 years old married England’s King George III (yes, the mad one).
She bore 15 children and, in perhaps the greatest understatement a woman on her 14th pregnancy could make, wrote, “I don’t think a prisoner could wish more ardently for his liberty than I wish to be rid of my burden and see the end of my campaign.”
She was an avid patron of the arts and an amateur botanist who supported Mozart and Johann Christian Bach and helped to expand Kew Gardens.
And though many people believe Meghan Markle shattered the English royal family racial mold in 2018, some historians have long argued that Charlotte was the direct descendent of a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal House and thus may have been ahead of Markle by almost 260 years.
Since I live under a rock, apparently, I’ve not seen the Netflix series Bridgerton, but I understand that it has sparked new interest in our queen and her racial heritage. The actress who plays her was born in Guyana to a British mother and a Guyanese father and identifies as Black.
And in that spirit, Charlotte artist Dammit Wesley has portrayed Queen Charlotte as a woman of color in his recent Camp North End mural. But was Queen Charlotte truly of African descent? It seems likely, and I believe we want it to be so, but it’s hard to know for certain.
According to a post by the Library of Congress called “‘Bridgerton’ and the Real Queen Charlotte,” she did not identify with people of African descent and appeared to have no compassion for those enslaved in the British colonies. Nevertheless, choosing to disavow or downplay one’s heritage does not make it any less the truth.
Even in 1768, we were obsessed with being “world-class”
So how did this presumed-African-Portuguese, German-born English queen become connected to our city?
You guessed it: political sucking up.
Settlers originally called the area Charlottetowne ostensibly to honor Queen Charlotte. Less sentimental historians would mention that it was also a maneuver to have the county courthouse located here, thus making Charlotte an economic hub.
The day Queen Charlotte came off the history book page for me was during elementary school, when I visited the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Road for the first time. I remember turning the corner, expecting another clay pot or silver trinket, and there, in floor-to-ceiling magnificence, was our eponymous queen.
Although not beautiful to my Disney-princess-saturated mind, she was impressive: regal, swathed in brocade, velvet and an enormous trailing ermine cape, with her hand resting gently on her crown. Even today, the portrait takes my breath away when I see it.
From a walk in her garden to life on a pedestal
Just three miles north of the Mint, a life-size Charlotte in bronze stands serenely on North College Street in front of Wake Forest University’s Charlotte campus.
She is still regal yet seems approachable, a small bouquet in her hand and her two dogs frolicking around her. The strongest opinions you tend to hear about this representation are that she’s nice or OK or, at worst, boring. She doesn’t seem to elicit much of a reaction.
But if a reaction is what you’re looking for, then allow me to introduce you to Queen Charlotte at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. In her previous life, she stood high atop an outdoor pedestal at the airport’s main entrance, but now, with airport construction in full swing, she’s having a well-deserved spa visit to be restored and re-patina’d. (Lucky Charlotte. I too would enjoy a good restoration and re-patina.)
You’ll be able to see her—this time inside the airport’s newly expanded terminal lobby—when the work is complete in a few years.
Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her
Journalistic neutrality is unnecessary here, so I can tell you that I love this statue. It is quite possibly my favorite piece of public art in Charlotte. I love the dramatic movement and flow of her body and gown. I love the way she holds her crown, balanced on her fingertips, high above her head. No longer the teenage bride. Done with those 15 pregnancies. She means business, and her business is to let you know you have arrived in her city—in Charlotte’s towne.
Yet in a surprising display of questionable aesthetics, not everyone shares my awestruck opinion of her! They have (rather uncharitably, I think) suggested she looks as if she’s been struck in the midsection by a cannonball shot or is being blown backwards by a hurricane or is suffering extreme abdominal distress.
I suspect that for every person who loves her, I could find another who despises her. Still, isn’t this one of the purposes of art, particularly public art—to inspire conversations, opinions and debate? If so, she has fulfilled that purpose, and more, admirably.
Queen Charlotte by Dammit Wesley
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