Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, the famed Ghanaian born-American writer, editor, journalist and public speaker, has penned an incisive commentary in the Los Angeles times that challenges Trump supporters as well as Clinton supporters to engage in conversations that go beyond the usual stereotyping that has been characteristic of this election as well as post-election commentaries.
Nana, who is best known for her 1998 memoir Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression, talks about her support for Hillary Clinton, and meeting on a coffee date with a cop who was staunch Trump supporter.
What could the two talk about? Any areas of mutual interest?
“Sometimes it is when we find it most difficult to live out our ideals that we rediscover them.
My local Starbucks is a frequent stop for several LAPD officers. The first dozen or so times when I drove into the parking lot and realized they were there, their white BMW motorcycles parked at a slant, I kept rolling through to the exit.
One evening, too tired to drive elsewhere, I decided to park and get my latte, despite the police presence. After all, I’d done nothing wrong.
Bearing in mind that, for black people, even seemingly unremarkable interactions with law enforcement have resulted in arrest or tragedy, I made it a point to not speak or make eye contact.
That Starbucks, like so many others, is a space of familiar faces. I used to go every morning, but when my work routine changed, I started going regularly in the evening, which is when the officers were there. Usually they’d be hanging out at a corner table, relaxed and jovial, having just finished their shifts.
Soon enough, I started seeing past their starched blue uniforms, regulation boots, their Tasers and shiny handguns holstered at their sides. We began exchanging cordial greetings and even engaging in casual conversation.
A few nights before Election Day, I sat with the officers and talked politics. An enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter, I explained why I felt she’d be the best choice. They listened thoughtfully, as they had during a previous conversation we’d had about Black Lives Matter.
They spoke honestly about specific issues such as immigration and the economy, while steering clear of endorsing any one candidate. Because numerous police groups had backed Donald Trump, I figured they were also supporters.
Before leaving, one of them, Officer Peter Landelius, and I agreed to meet the evening after the election to talk about the results. At the time I had no doubt that Clinton would win.
But when the day came, and she lost, I was despondent, angry, bitter and completely out of sorts. The last thing I wanted was to spend time with a cop who’d voted for Donald Trump; but I’d given my word.
Peter approached me as I was paying for my latte.
“How’ve you been handling everything today?” he asked, with what sounded like genuine concern. I bit my lip to keep from crying as I searched for a polite answer. He must have seen the pain on my face because he stepped forward and embraced me.
That act of kindness calmed me, somehow centered me in myself. The emotions, though still present, didn’t feel as raw, burning beneath my skin. As we hugged, I wondered if I would have been as charitable had the situation been reversed. Would I have consoled him with open arms and an open heart?
He confirmed that he’d voted for Trump, and now I wanted some answers.
“Explain to me what happened,” I said, following Peter to a table.
“You tell me,” he insisted. “A whole lot of women voted for Trump. What does that mean?”
“White women,” I corrected. “Not black women. We voted overwhelmingly for Hillary.” I felt my anger rising to the surface again. “Maybe,” I added, “it’s about them disliking black and brown people more than they like themselves.”
“Oh, come on,” he smiled. “You don’t really believe that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.”
Once more, my emotions were tempered by the vulnerability he displayed. By “everyone,” I knew he meant himself.
Peter, who has been on the force for 21 years, is tall and bald with very light features. If you inked a swastika on his scalp or biceps, he could pass for a stereotypical skinhead. But I knew from earlier conversations that his ex-wife, with whom he has two teenage sons, is African American.
I remembered something a friend used to always say: Assume that the most important and defining things about a person cannot be seen or learned through superficial social pleasantries.
Being painted with a broad brushstroke is one of the things I most resent. When I realized that’s exactly what I was doing, I shut up. I barely knew Peter, and with the exception of the most basic descriptors, I knew almost nothing about anyone else who voted for Trump.
We moved on to other subjects. He told me his parents are Swedish immigrants. His father was an old-school jeweler, his mother, a homemaker. Though California-born and raised mostly in the Pacific Palisades, he’d spent about seven years of his childhood in Sweden.
“Sweden?” I was surprised.
“Yep ,” Peter nodded. “I’m about as white as you can get.”
I then shared with him that my parents are Ghanaian immigrants who came to America in the 1970s. Though born in Ghana, I spent my childhood in Washington, D.C.
“Ghana?” He, too, seemed surprised.
“Yep,” I said. “I’m about as black as you can get.”
We laughed at the similarities that were etched deeply into our differences.
I am not suggesting that my friendship with Peter and his partners changes any of the disturbing events that are taking place in this country. Nor is this an attempt to normalize or rationalize the election, its startling results, or the racial hatred, religious intolerance, homophobia and misogyny that are so prevalent in our society.
I don’t know what can fix the growing inequities in our country. What I do know is that I can’t live with a heart that is slowly turning to stone. I still want to believe in the goodness of people, no matter their ideology or where they sit on the political divide.
In these times, I believe I am called upon to practice what I preach, to search for some small reflection of myself in others to find the glimmer of their humanity that brings me back to my own.
And it’s not always so easy.
When I see a police car or motorcycle in my rear view mirror, I am filled with fear and worry. I pray that I will not become yet another black person killed during a routine traffic stop. That hasn’t changed.
When I hear a news report that a police officer has been killed I immediately think of Officer Landelius and the rest of the coffee crew. I pray that they are safe. Then I pray for the family and friends of the slain officer. And that, for me, is an entirely new reality and response. “