Twenty years ago, I emerged from the IRT #2 subway line at Fulton Street to what could only be described as a perfect day, blue skies, not a cloud to be seen except it wasn’t a perfect day; it was a day of unbelievable horror. I remember standing on Fulton Street, staring at the towers only a few blocks away, smoldering. I remember running when the first tower collapsed and a dust cloud came roaring down Fulton Street. I remember standing on the FDR Drive only a short time later watching the second tower collapse and with tears in my eyes, turning to a colleague who also had tears in their eyes and muttering the words, my God, how many people do you think were in that building. Evil and hatred took so many from us that day, but for those of us who lived through the horror of that day, we also remember how we all came together for each other. Black or white, male or female, it didn’t matter; religious or sexual orientation was irrelevant. It was the best of humanity showing itself in the face of those who knew only hatred. It was as if we were saying; even if we didn’t realize it, hate could not define us. We are all in this together. We are all one people. Today on the 20th anniversary of that horrible day, let us remember how we bonded together, how for one moment we understood we are all human. Let us hope one day that moment can be every moment.
You feared us from the minute you saw us. So you stripped us of our culture, religion, and name. You shackled us in chains, raped our women, and killed our men. You separated our families. You donned white hoods and rode through the night to terrorize us. You denied our children access to the type of education your children enjoyed. You silenced our voices by denying and then intimidating our access to the vote. You redlined us out of neighbors and unfairly denied us loans to secure the American dream of homeownership. You disproportionately incarcerated us. You used the media to stereotype us as killers, thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps.
Yet today, you look, and to your disbelief, we are still standing, and your fear is growing. You use words like “Our America” and wish for a bygone time when segregation and racism were the norms with slogans like “Make America Great Again” Even more worrisome to you is the coalition of all races, religions, and genders standing with us now. You know the truth is out there. You are losing your America. “Your” America was flawed. It is being replaced by a more enlightened America, one for everyone. An America with equality, liberty, and justice for all.
It’s March Madness, so I figured I would go to youtube and relive some of the great one shining moment videos from years past, and you know what stands out the most? It was watching young adults, black and white celebrating together or consoling each other, even opposing team players. At that movement of jubilation or sadness, they didn’t see or look for color. It didn’t matter because they were all in it together.
What a concept!
If only the world could act like that, I think to myself, what a wonderful world it would be. Oh yeah,
I am pleased to see that we have differences.
May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.
-Surak of Vulcan
I am the child of Charles and Frances Cooke two African-Americans born in the early 1900s in the southern part of the United States. As such I have always identified myself as African-American and from time to time was reminded of this by society. From being chased out of a park while being called a nigger when I was 10, having a police officer point a gun at my head when I was 15 simply because I made the mistake of tossing a football around the yard of a white friend who lived in the suburbs, to being pulled over numerous times in my early 20s despite not fitting the “profile” because as kind of a nerd I normally had on penny loafers with argyle socks and matching sweater but my skin color was still the wrong shade.
While my self identification is the result of being raised, loved, and natured by two exceptional individuals who themselves were also African-American I am also adopted, a fact that was kept hidden from me until my late 30s. I know nothing of my biological father other than the fact that he wasn’t African-American. Recently I completed one of those DNA test and found out I was in fact 54.6% Sub-Saharan African and 43.9% European. Interesting I thought as I looked at my results how many of those Europeans had looked at me and seen just the color of my skin and thought of me as inferior? How many of them don’t look like me but have a similar ancestry? Does it really matter what my ancestry is? Does it define how I should live my life?
Our ancestry defines our culture and to a large extend our culture is a leading factor in defining who we are. But while it is a leading factor it does not change the fact that we are all human. Humans with differences but humans nevertheless. It is our differences that If embraced instead of feared would in fact make us stronger as a species. The sun, Earth’s primary source of energy, emits white light but that white light is actually a composite of all of the visible frequencies of light. Without the differences all the colors bring there would be no light at all. So is the case with the human species? Where would we be without our many differences? How would we advance and grow without the varied contributions of so many cultures?
The question before us now is how do we begin to embrace our differences as a species when our entire existence shows we let those differences divide us. Seemingly there is no answer to that. Man has always fostered a sense of loyalty rooted in group identity. We pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer has always been mankind’s rallying call. I am pessimistic about our ability to overcome the us versus them mentality in the short term. However I am optimistic that the human is a very promising species and as Captain Jean Luc Picard once said “inside you is the potential to make yourself better…and that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are.” Today our difference divide us perhaps tomorrow we will be better and our differences will be our strength.
Some of us are Republicans, some Democrats, and some independents. Some of us are people of color; some of us are not. Some of us are heterosexual, some homosexual, some bisexual. Some of us Christian, some Muslim, some Jewish, some atheists, and a host of other beliefs; in the end, we are all American, and most importantly, we are all humans.
There is often a fear of the unknown in some of us, an irrational fear that leads to isolation. Isolation leads to a lack of knowledge and understanding about those that are different from us. If history has taught us anything, a lack of knowledge often leads to disastrous results. It also can lead to the continuous growth of the prejudices we all have within us. Those prejudices are stripped away as we begin to understand those who differ from us. However, for those who remain isolated, those prejudices remain and can be easily stoked by people in power who do so for the goal of advancing their wealth and power. These individuals thrive on chaos and division. They speak non-truths and keep the people divided against each other rather than uniting for humanity’s betterment as a whole. They want us to be afraid of each other; they want us to hate each other, want us to lose our compassion for each other, and build walls to separate us. This strategy allows them to take advantage of us all. As Suzy Kassem wrote:
When two brothers are busy fighting, an evil man can easily attack and rob their poor mother.
We must strive as Americans and humans to rise above the evil that seeks to divide us. We must stand together and keep moving forward as a society. We must marginalize those who refuse to embrace diversity. For in unifying one voice into many voices, we will be able to change the despair of today into the promise of tomorrow, and from that, we all will be better.
As Yoda would say: Do not think. Do.
As children, we do not look at each other and think.
How are they different than me?
Do they believe in the same god I believe in?
Where were they born?
What is their sexual orientation?
As children, we do. We see other children and look to interact with them. We do not think about the unknowns of the child across from us. We reject the fear that they may be different than us because we do not believe there is an unknown. We allow our minds to be free, to embrace the unknown and new possibilities. In these possibilities is the growth potential that is essential for the existence of humanity. As we grow, we learn to question the culture, religion, and religion of others. Subsequently, we cease to grow; we stagnant and wither away, unable to or afraid to dream of a better future for humanity.
Yoda had it right. Do not think. Do
America is not a country.
America is a concept.
A concept based on the founding fathers’ words in the Declaration of Independence, the document that announces America’s creation. Words that America did not live up to at that time, words that America has fought to live up to ever since, but words in which America was created:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
America is the largest and the world’s only real “melting pot,” A society whose success is defined by immigrants’ contributions from all over sharing thoughts and ideas to create one new culture. It is written in the United States’ very seal, E pluribus unum – “From many, one.”
Sadly, at the very time, America is becoming increasingly diverse; it is becoming more polarized. The concept on which it was founded, the concept that allowed it to become the world’s leading nation, is slowly being forgotten by many of its citizens. Just as the founding fathers spent four long months debating with each other, listening to each other’s points of view, and coming to compromises that benefited the collective in a real democracy, the citizens must listen to and understand one another. They cannot hope to sustain their democracy by merely pursuing their interests; They must be willing to make concessions in the hope of finding common ground for the good of America as a whole.
Online decision-making platform Cloverpop found a direct link between workplace diversity and decision-making. When diverse teams made a business decision, they outperformed individual decision-makers up to 87% of the time. When employees with different backgrounds and perspectives come together, they develop more solutions, which leads to more informed and improved decision-making processes and results. Whether some accept it or not, this is the hallmark of America. It is what makes America stand out. America is not a specific racial or ethnic identity or religious belief. America is differing groups with varying moral and religious outlooks, coming together to embrace America’s concept. It is in their diversity that America exists.
In the last four years, we have seen America led by a President who promoted division and hatred. Stroked fears and tacitly promoted the idea that for a particular segment, they were losing their America. Ironically it was the person he defeated to become President who truly understood what makes America great when she said:
What we have to do… is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities.
Secretary Clinton understood that no one group could claim America, and therefore no one group can lose America. America is what it is because it is a beautiful mosaic, and while we may not always see eye to eye, that is fine. We may have differences, that too is fine. As Surak, the most influential philosopher in the history of the planet Vulcan, remarked:
I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.
In 2008 I was transfixed to my television screen with tears in my eyes as Barack Obama and his family celebrated his historic victory, becoming the first African American President of the United States of America in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Here was a moment I never believed I would live to see.
Here was a man that looked like me
Here was a family that looked like mine.
Here was a family that was now the FIRST family.
It was a moment that I will always remember. It said to me that maybe just maybe, America has turned a corner. Perhaps people of color will finally be afforded the respect that they have always deserved. Maybe America was finally going to live up to the words on which it was founded that all people are created equal. Maybe Doctor Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that we will be judged by our character’s content and not the color of our skin was finally on the cusp of becoming a reality.
But then came 2016, and even though, for eight years, President Obama and his entire family were the personifications of grace and dignity, America elected a man who was the polar opposite. A man who campaigned on division and tactically embraced racism. Maybe I thought to myself, America hasn’t turned that corner.
But as miserable as 2020 has been, something special was happening. 2020 saw the rise of the Coalition of the Righteous. A coalition of varying ethnic and religious groups, gender and sexual orientations, young and old, and they were ready to rebuke Donald Trump’s message of racism and bigotry.
Today the hope I had in 2008 is building in my heart again. On Saturday night, I beamed with happiness as I watch Senator Kamala Harris. a woman of color, address our country as the first female Vice President-Elect. It was an emotional moment as I thought to myself, for 400 years, they have tried to silence us, but here Senator Harris stood, and as she spoke, you could almost hear the wind whispering in the background saying:
WE ARE STILL HERE, AND WE ARE EXTRAORDINARY!
SAY IT LOUD I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD!