It is a testament to how much I still love them that I can’t use their real names. What if they stumbled upon this and felt my descriptions of them were inaccurate and my perceptions of them were incomplete? I do not want to misrepresent them. I loved their son. I was with him for almost four years and we were as close to married as married can get. I thought my child would bear their name. I thought they would be my family forever. I thought there would be a thousand more Christmases, skiing up in the mountains of Montana, eating cheeseburger soup and singing along to a DVD of Mamma Mia. They were the first Republicans I had ever met in person. And they were the first people who humanized that political identity for me. Before them, in my mind, Republicans were this screaming horde of racist, hypocritical, Christian fundamentalists. I was horrified when I found out my boyfriend had been birthed by some. Time and again I probed, trying to ferret out some belief that would prove all I loved about him to be a lie. Time and again I tried to see if what he had told me his parents were lived in some part of him. I never found it. And when I finally met Bob and Helen I was shocked to find that most of what was good in my boyfriend came from them.
They were kind. And real. And open. And apart from this whimsical attachment to fiscal conservatism they seemed to defy every stereotype I had ever had about Republicans. They loved me. Wholeheartedly. They welcomed me into their house on the ocean and cradled me as tenderly as my own parents did. Helen wrote my mother an email on Mother’s Day to thank her for making me, for creating someone who brought out the very best in her son. Bob cooked for me almost every day and asked for so many tutorials on Ghanaian food that I bought him a West African cookbook for Christmas. They noticed when I was cold. They noticed when I was homesick. They noticed that I liked cookies and Swedish meatballs and kept those coming. They noticed that I didn’t like rhubarb pie and lutefisk, and swept them away before other relatives could pressure me to eat them.
Helen would pack me a lunch every time I was going back to California, and fill these insanely pretty bags with tapenade, blackberry cobbler, the most love-filled sandwiches, and handwritten notes. She bought me these Baltic amber earrings that I wore to my very first job interview, and this silk robe from China that I have mended three times in the past year because I cannot bear to throw it away. At the end of 2014, five whole years after I had last seen them in person, I got a concerned email asking if my family would need anything at all if the Ebola crisis happened to spill over into Ghana. Bob and Helen hated meanness and airs. They hated abuses of power. They would have drop-kicked people who treated me badly and they would have turned their backs on anyone who somehow believed that I was less than them because of where I came from. Up until November 8th I would have sworn that they’d hate Donald Trump.
But since he won and I began to understand the dynamics of why he won, and how he won, I toss and turn every night wondering if Bob and Helen, my Bob and Helen are two of the reasons why. When I sprawl out on my back I say “No, no way. They would have been horrified by the race-baiting and the pussy-grabbing and the shady business deals. They would have said, ‘Not until hell freezes over. We don’t know what “woke” means but right is right and wrong is wrong and this man is a racist.’” But then I flop onto my stomach and I start chewing my lip because I remember that time Bob asked me earnestly if it was true that pygmies were considered low-quality Africans. I remember the afternoon Helen walked in after I had taken out my braid extensions and froze at the cloud of kinky coils that formed a halo around my face. When I curl onto my side I remember how much they wanted grandchildren from me, and how firmly they would have reminded those grandchildren their son and I gave them that whiteness wasn’t a requirement for being worthy of respect and anyone who tried to demonize immigrants was wrong. I remember how both Bob and Helen grew up on small farms in Alabama and Washington and worked all their lives to become a doctor and a nurse. I imagine how much disdain they would have at the thought of a one-million-dollar seed loan from your dad. But then I pull my legs up to my chin and start to calculate what kind of tax break their income bracket will get next year and wonder whether, at any point this year, they did that math.
This to me, is the most heartbreaking thing about this Trump victory. It’s made people like me look at the people who I considered mine, with new eyes. It’s made people like me, who are fully aware of how nuanced and complex human affiliation is, wrestle with the thought that folks born in our skin were perhaps always on probation with people we believed we were fully visible to, and perhaps the allegiance with them that we had always thought was airtight was stable only because it had never had to be tested. I wonder now how often Bob and Helen saw me roll my eyes when they read or heard something bigoted and evil that Trump had done. I wonder now if I was enough to stay their hand when they were in the voting booth. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist but I believe that everyone who voted for him had to reconcile themselves to being okay with a little dehumanization of certain groups of people. Maybe when they looked inside themselves, excusing what they saw as the small personal failings of one man was a miniscule price to pay for shaking up a government that they believed had taken them for granted. Maybe when they looked inside themselves the view of their grievances and a world they no longer recognized obscured the faces of everyone they loved whose lives will be forever altered in this new America.
Did Bob and Helen do these mental gymnastics? Or were they steadfast in remaining the people I know and love? I don’t know. I probably never will. When a relationship ends you mourn the loss of what you had but also the death of all this possibility that existed with the person. You mourn the children you’ll never have, the awesome places you’ll never have furtive sex in, the extended family you’ve grown to love that will no longer be yours. You mourn the loss of agency in shaping your future. But if the future would have been this then I’m glad it did not come to pass. If this is the America I would have had to live in with them, with this new cloud of doubt hanging over our love, then I’m glad that I am not their son’s wife, their grandchildren’s mother and their favorite person in the whole wide world. I am relieved that I am no longer a part of their family, that I will not be forced to sit across from them this Christmas and wonder. I am grateful that I no longer have the right to call them and force them to answer a question that would reconfigure their place in my heart. It is a testament to how much I still love them that if they said yes I would bite my lip, blink back tears and still change their names when I write about them so they are not defined by one staggeringly hurtful choice.
F.N. is a thirty something Ghanaian free-lance writer who alternates between living in Accra and Washington, DC.
Photo courtesy of Independent.co.uk.