Today is June 7, 2020. On this day, twelve years ago, I remember when my New York City apartment burned down. It was a devastating day, and miraculously, I did not lose my life (you can read that story here).
Today I’m alive, I’m healthy, there’s lots to live for. This day serves to remind me how fragile life is.
But, for today, let’s not put anymore focus on my life. Instead, let’s focus on the lives of others.
I think I can speak for everyone here, including me, who is in full support of bringing the necessary change needed to finally end the issues black people in America are facing and have faced in our country for 400 years, originating when black people were first horrifically kidnapped and imported here as slaves.
I, like many of you, live in and love New York City. It’s the “Melting Pot” that brings together all the races and ethnicities of the world. It’s the “Center of the Universe”, a single spot where new ideas, creativities, and fashions come together. It’s the “Capital of the World”, the celebration of commerce, embracing success and entrepreneurship with companies from around the world introducing new and innovative products into our marketplace.
What was the first major product introduced to the brand new and exciting marketplace of New York City? The black African slave. Brought here by the Dutch West India Company in 1626, one of the most “entrepreneurial and successful” companies of its day.
Everything we enjoy in today’s new “Digital World” is built on code that run our computers and algorithms, but back then, our “New World” was built on the backs of slaves who were coerced, intimidated, brutalized, and dehumanized into forced human labor.
Each slave, a unique human being, was packaged as a product, and marketed to serve his or her master with his or her own unique abilities and skill set. Each slave was sold at auction to the highest bidder. That product was so successful, that by 1702, it was estimated that 42% of all households in New York City had a black slave.
Why did so many households have black slaves?
Think about all the Apps and appliances we have in our new “Digital World” that provide endless services to us within our home. Amazon Alexas take notes of our errands and deliver things to us. Google Nests monitor our home’s security, help us manage our busy schedules, and remind us of important things. Handy schedules household cleanings. Seamless orders fresh breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All our appliances like vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and laundry machines clean our homes, dishes and clothes. But back then, in the “New World”, we could have had all those services combined, and much more, with a single black slave.
I cannot imagine how horrible life was for them.
Even though I reference New York City, the issue of black slavery was not limited to America, it infected many other countries all throughout Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and North America, and even Africa itself. Horrifically, there are also place still to this day that still allows slavery and a slave trade.
One hundred fifty years after the first blacks were brought here as slaves, America declared independence from Britain in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence stating that “all men are created equal” with rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Two inspiring and truly revolutionary concepts, written at the time by one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, a man who would also serve as our third President, and an owner of 600 slaves himself. But, we all know these phrases still didn’t apply to most Americans, especially black people, as blacks were thought to be racially inferior to whites. The mindset of racial slavery being a right or a wrong could be understood by Thomas Jefferson himself who later said “We have the wolf (i.e. the black slave) by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
After we declared independence, things started to change. A year later, in 1777, Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery, with other states slowly following suit.
But still, eighty years later, there were only 19 free states in the North, with 15 slave states still in the South. I am from one of those southern slave states, Maryland, right below the Mason–Dixon line, which divided the northern free “Union” states, from the southern slave “Confederate” states.
Why was there a divide?
In today’s Internet and Social Media World, “Content is King“, a phrase first coined by Bill Gates in 1996, and rings more true today than ever. Think about all the $ billions of dollars invested globally in resources, time, and capital for the creation of content.
Back in the mid-1800’s, “Cotton was King“. Cotton was the #1 main industry in America, it was our top money maker and #1 exported product, accounting for 50% of all our exports. Americans spent decades eradicating the peoples and the lands of the Native Americans and replaced them with black slaves and cotton plantations all throughout the southern states. The slaughter and taking the lands of the Native Americans legally commenced with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and it was lead by Andrew Jackson, our seventh President, who is also pictured on our $20 dollar bill.
Both the Northern and Southern states were heavily profiting from the cotton industry, and it helped lead our young country into greater real estate expansion and financial growth and flexibility, enabling our government to also borrow money from abroad.
In other words, America economically went from zero to hero.
The Northern states provided the services needed to maintain the industry, including the banking, insurance, legal, marketing, shipping services. The Southern states provided the actual cotton products needed to maintain the industry, including the massive agricultural land and human slave labor necessary. It was estimated that 1 million black slaves were sent from the north to the south to fuel this growth, with 4 million black slaves in total, 1/3 of the population. The invention of the Cotton Gin enabled even greater productivity to this industry. As the value of the industry continued to increase, so did the necessity of the institution of black slavery.
By then, 1861, there was a complete stand still on the issue of slavery. America was so politically and economically divided on slavery that all that tension exploded into what is called the Civil War.
North vs. South. Union vs. Confederate. American vs. American.
The Civil War ignited immediately after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, the first president of the brand new Republican party, whose mission was to end slavery. Believe it or not, it was the Republican party that was created as the anti-slavery party, and, it was the Democratic Party that was created against the abolition of slavery. After the Civil Rights era is when we get to the parties we know of today, which I’ll get to).
Every institution of the south was tied to slavery, including economically, culturally, institutionally, legally. The end of slavery was perceived to be the end and destruction of the southern way of life and livelihood by the north. Since the northern states were more economically and culturally a service oriented society, they viewed slavery more as an individual and micro issue, as historically the black slave in the north was typically a household servant vs. the south that saw slavery as the most critically important macro driver of the engine of their economy and their entire way of life.
It might make sense then, as to why, immediately after the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Confederate southern states succeeded from the Union northern states, elected their own President, Jefferson Davis, who established a new country, the Confederate States of America, with its own constitution and currency, waving a new Confederate “Battle Flag” (you can read my own personal story of my first encounter with a Confederate flag here), organized an army, and invaded the Union via the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina – the “Pearl Harbor” moment of its time.
It’s very hard for me to actually conceptualize what happened, why it happened, and how it happened, as the slave issue was so polarizing.
But if I can just make a comparison to what happened in 1861 like what happened in our most recent 2016 Presidential election. It’s a terrible comparison to make, as it has no truth. But, let’s say the Democratic party which lost the election of 2016 acted like the Confederacy in 1861. As a comparison, remember, this is a bad comparison, after the Democrats lost in 2016, they would have declared their states are no longer part of the United States. They would have renamed themselves as a brand new country, with a new flag, constitution, and even currency. They then elected a new president, who then directs troops be organized, and then declares war against the Republican states, and immediately sets course to invade and defeat those states. The goal was total military takeover, and anyone standing in the way was to either be part of the new nation or be killed. Troops on both sides would immediately be organized to defend and wage war against each other. I’m not talking about a Twitter war of words between Republicans and Democrats, but an actual war of organized military, firearms, and death. I am not advocating for any of this to happen, remember, this is all just one big bad comparison just to help put it into our context.
As shocking as all this might sound, it’s not the end of it.
For four gruesome years, the northern states and the southern states fought, and by the end of the Civil War, 655,000 Americans were killed.
To give even more context, more Americans died of their desire to free black slaves or maintain black slaves than all those Americans who died from all our major wars with all our foreign adversaries, combined. Revolutionary War (25,000), WWI (116,000), WWII (405,000), the Korean War (36,000), the Vietnam War (58,000), and the Afghanistan & Iraq Wars (7,000). When you add it all up, 647,000 Americans killed in 56 total years at war.
What a tragic fact we have in the history of America.
Americans killed more Americans in America due to the issue of black slavery then all Americans killed in defense of American against every major foreign enemy America has ever faced in our nearly 250 years in existence as a country, at a daily kill rate 14x higher than all the other major wars combined (56 years for the all other wars vs. 4 years of the Civil War).
Americans killing Americans inside America > Non-Americans killing Americans outside America.
We had so many Americans killed in the Civil War that the U.S. federal government in 1864 even had to create its own national cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery, just to provide a plot of land large enough to bury many of these dead. Yet, still to this day, there are more who died in the four years of the Civil War than those actually buried at Arlington National Cemetery throughout its entire history of over one hundred fifty years.
Even thought this is the most tragic chapter of American history, and it happened over one hundred fifty years ago, our country has still not gotten over the Civil War.
Americans still honor and celebrate the Confederacy all across America.
Here is just one example: monuments, statues, state flags, military bases, the names of our cities and schools. I am in no way am I saying that this is the only proof that we still haven’t gotten over it, it is just one example out of many, and there are still many other examples.
There exists thousands of monuments, statues, state flags, military bases, and schools in honor of the Confederacy. The existence of the Confederacy lead to the most deaths we’ve ever had as a nation, and yes, we still honor them. Further, here’s a list of all the statues that honor and schools that are named after Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, enemy #1, leading killer of Americans in America, with Confederate “Battle Flags” still being sold as bumper stickers, t-shirts and symbols all across the U.S.
Would we build statues of Adolf Hitler and sell bumper stickers of the swastika after we fought in WWII? Would we build statues of Kim Il-sung, the founder and first supreme leader of North Korea (and great grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un), after we fought in the Korean War? Would we use our tax money to maintain statues of Osama Bin Laden and fly the flags of Al-Qaeda and ISIS after 9/11 and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would we even create commemorations for COVID-19, which has lead to the recent killings of over 100,000+ Americans?
The obvious answer to this question is no.
But, one of the greatest beauties of our country is that we’re actually free to do so. We can still legally display these statues and symbols, as they are all protected under the 1st Amendment. But, just because we’re able to do so, that does not mean it’s right to do so. We can all agree that’s not how we want to communicate who we are and what we believe in. And that’s also a reason why we as a country are still dealing with this issue.
Why can’t we just bury it into the ground and move on?
When a right or possession of ours at one point was legal, like slavery, and then we make it illegal, it’s extremely difficult for us as a country to bury it into the ground and move on. Take gun control, prohibition and alcohol, and drugs like opioids.
Likewise, when a right or possession of ours at one point was illegal, and then we make it legal, it’s extremely difficult for us as a country to bury it into the ground and move on. Take same sex marriage, abortion, and drugs like marijuana.
April 15th is the day we all know as Tax Day, the day our federal income taxes are due. But on this same date back in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Our first President to be murdered in office was killed because of his leadership to finally abolish slavery in the U.S. Three weeks after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Civil War ended, and later that year in December, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, which finally ended slavery.
Digressing for a moment, February 12th is the date of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It’s a birthdate I share with him, and I have always thought there was no better birthdate than to be born on the same date as this amazing human being and leader that can serve to all of us as an inspiration. Each one of you is also invited to my birthday party next year.
February is also celebrated as Black History Month in the U.S. In elementary school, I was asked to present my favorite black inventor to the class. Today, we all have Google to help us with this search query, but back then, you had to flip through many many books to research and find your answer. My pick was Garrett Morgan, who among his many inventions, created the first automatic, electric traffic light. Yes, that same red, yellow, and green traffic light that everyone knows and relies on all around the world. This is just one contribution of countless others the black community has contributed to our society.
Sorry for the sidetrack. Now, back to the story.
After slavery was abolished in 1865, we all know things didn’t end there.
Instead of allowing blacks to live under the phrase “all men are created equal” as its written in our constitution, another system was created for blacks, which was known as “separate but equal“. This segregated blacks from whites, and greatly limited their abilities to enjoy everything that this country has to offer, including liberty, education, and economic growth.
They are called the “Jim Crow” laws.
Today we have “social media influencers” who provide us with highly entertaining content with a click of a button. Back then, there was no internet, no TV, no radio. Instead, our country had “minstrel shows” which consisted of comedy skits, variety acts, dance, and music performances that were performed by white people in blackface. These minstrel shows traveled all around the country and their characters were as well known as any A-list celebrity of today. One of the most famous minstrel show actors was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man in blackface, whose character was “Jim Crow.”
Even though slavery was abolished in the south, absolutely every aspect of society became legally segregated, including schools, parks, transportation, stores, restaurants, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. After COVID-19, we will be seeing lots of signage in places like these with sayings like “Maintain Social Distancing” and “Stand Six Feet Apart”. Back then, we would have seen lots of signage saying “Whites Only” and “No Blacks”.
American was still very far from a land resembling “freedom”.
It then took another one hundred years for the Civil Rights Movement to finally be realized in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was an organized effort by black Americans to finally end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the federal law. Activists and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated to work within the legal framework and for blacks to work with whites) and Malcolm X (who dismissed the legal framework and advocated the superiority of blacks over whites) helped lead the movement, albeit from different extremes. This movement lead to more federal laws and judicial verdicts that finally ended legal segregation and discrimination in the U.S. The most well known being the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended racial segregation.
Activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were also assassinated, with Martin Luther King, Jr. being the most well known and celebrated leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In the U.S., the 3rd Monday in January is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which honors his birthday and his leadership, as he is best known for advancing civil rights through his inspiring words and speeches, like “I Have a Dream“, promoting nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his religious beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi, who helped free India from colonial British rule (who also was assassinated).
The assassinations didn’t stop, next was Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother (President John F. Kennedy was the latest President to be assassinated in office), who was slated to potentially become the next President of the U.S. in 1968 and was celebrated as being able to even further advance the issues of civil rights.
Unfortunately, our history books end the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, this same year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. The former football stadium of the Washington Redskins, a stadium I went to as a kid was named RFK Stadium, in honor of Robert F. Kennedy. It was also at this time that what we think of now as the Republican party became the Republican party, and what we think of now as the Democratic party became the Democratic party, with Southern states becoming more reliably Republican in presidential politics and the Northern states becoming more reliably Democratic.
Since our founding, we have not stopped dealing with race serving as our biggest issue diving this country.
This is such a weird concept to both Americans and non-Americans a like, as America is supposed to be the “land of the free and home of the brave“, a phrase we recite from The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem, and the land of the “tired…poor.. masses yearning to breathe free,” a phrase inscripted on the Statue of Liberty.
Yet, we all know that even though black people make up a strong minority of our country (42 million people, about 12% of our population), they still face a strong majority of the issues people in our country face, especially with issues in regards to financial and economic security, education, personal liberty and freedoms, as well as with police brutality, criminal justice, and incarceration. We also know that even things that shouldn’t be tied racism at all like COVID-19 is still killing black people at a disproportionate rate.
And still unfortunately, only a couple weeks ago, on May 25, 2020, we have all seen the shocking and horrific murder of George Floyd by a group of Minneapolis police officers, shared on social media. His “crime”, using a fake $20 dollar bill.
I also remember seeing my first murder by police, shared on social media. It happened on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island in New York City, when Eric Garner was horrifically put into a chock hold and killed by a group of NYPD officers. His “crime”, selling a loosie, a single cigarette sold out of a cigarette pack, probably for a $1 dollar bill.
But even 65 years ago, we had other names, like Emmett Till, who on August 28, 1955, was a 14-year-old boy who was taken from his bed, beaten, shot and dumped into the river by a group of white men, all of whom were later found innocent by an all-white jury. His “crime”, whistling at a white woman.
I’ve heard people ask whether the true motivating factor of these murders was racism. It’s a good question, since none of us actually know. Since we are not actually the killers, we don’t actually know where their actual minds are at.
So, even though all the victims were black, and the perpetrators were not, let’s just completely remove race from the picture, and let us just all agree upon the basic facts…
- A group of people who held a more superior status in society forcefully took possession of another person.
- They restricted that person’s ability to move, inflicted extreme pain and suffering upon him, and ultimately killed him.
- To the victim, any efforts to save his life failed. He might not even have known he was in grave danger and that he was going to die until it was too late.
- To the killers, there were indications that the victim was in extreme pain and may even die, but no one from the group changed the course of their actions or had shown any mercy.
- The magnitude of the horrific method of murder doesn’t match the magnitude of the actual “crime” the victim may have actually committed.
To put it another way…
Will I, Jon Harari, ever be in a situation where a group of powerful people, forcibly take possession of me, inflict extreme pain upon me, and kill me without any mercy for the “crime” of using a fake $20 bill, selling a loosie, or for whistling at a woman?
The obvious answer to this question is no.
To deal with everything going on right now is absolutely unprecedented and complicated. And, if you’re still reading this, you may be thinking to yourself what’s the answer, how can we change this?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. I don’t have the magic potion.
All I know is that there is a bright side.
There’s always a bright side.
I know for certain, is that each and every one of us possess two of the most powerful tools to create an impact.
We all have 1) our voice and 2) our ability to sacrifice.
1) Our Voice
When we see something we don’t like or agree with, we have a voice.
When we see something we support, we have a voice.
There’s many ways to use our voice.
As human beings, we are all empowered to communicate with our voice, including our actual vocal cords which allow us to speak, our fingers which allow us to write and type, our body and movements to non-verbally communicate, and our actions which inspire others.
There’s also lot of technologies in the world the empower us to communicate our voice, which include internet technologies like the emails we send, the images and videos we share on social media, and the content we share on websites. There are more artistic ways we can communicate our voice through art, theatre, tv, and film.
That’s just a small sample of the options in how we can use our voice.
For those of you that use your voice, and there’s no one single textbook that teaches us how to best communicate. We just need to use our voice, and the more that we use it, the more we learn how to use it.
2) Our Sacrifice
When we see something we don’t like, we don’t have to sacrifice for it.
When we see something we do like, we can sacrifice for it.
There’s many ways to sacrifice.
Some of us sacrifice our time. We work, we volunteer, we help others, we attend meetings, we stand in protest, we stand in support.
Some of us sacrifice our wealth. There’s many ways to donate and financially support things we believe in. It’s so easy now with the internet to click and support, even just by sharing a link.
For those that sacrifice, there’s never any amount that’s too small, and there’s never any amount that’s too big.
Some of us even make the ultimate sacrifice, our lives in pursuit of what we believe in. I, in no way, advocate for anyone to sacrifice their lives. I just recognize that there are many people that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for standing up for what they believe in.
So, what’s changed? How is this moment different than those from the past?
The sacrifice has been there, that’s clear from our history, and there are so people continuing the sacrifice.
The different now is the voice, never before have so many voices been heard.
Given today’s technologies, more people are given more ability to project and amplify their voice in ways that have never been achieved before.
That’s what gives me hope.
We all possess the most powerful tools that we have for positive change, and I hope we can all continue to use them to make a positive difference in our lives. We all have our roles.
At the same time, we also see in our history where our voice and our sacrifice is used not for good, but for evil. We always need to be careful of those that use our most powerful tools for the wrong purposes.
That being said, I 100% believe that the issues like racism that we still face as a country can 100% be solved. Remember, we are all >99% the same, we’ve known that now for a long time. To anyone getting a grade on a test, we all know that getting 99% is an A+, it’s like getting a 100% perfect score. We’re all pretty much the same on the inside, no matter what we look like on the outside, and we all know that none of us wants to be judged by how they look on the outside when we all want to be judged is by who we are on the inside.
And I look forward to the day when our future generations look back at us and mock us.
Just like we might look back at past generations and say how terrible it was that they had to use fire, instead of electricity, just to light up a room. How terrible it was that they had to use donkeys, instead of vehicles, to transport themselves. How terrible it was that they did not believe in washing their hands as a way of cleaning themselves.
Future generations will also look back at us and say how terrible it was that people in our lifetime had suffered from racism because we did not have the proper technology to share our voice.
Let’s also quickly address some other issues at this moment.
First and foremost, this is a story of all lives mattering. Black, white, blue, and every single color and shape and size you can find.
I feel for all those affected by COVID-19 and all the lives globally that have been lost. I have family on the front lines, and know friends that have had their love ones lost.
I also feel for all those who have economically lost. 35,000,000 million are unemployed in the U.S. I have friends who work and own restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, real estate, and businesses that have all completely shutdown.
It is heartbreaking for me to see the windows of the stores in New York City and around the country being smashed, the stores being looted, and retailers being boarded up. As CEO & Co-Founder of WindowsWear, the beauty and celebration of window displays is what our company was built on. I also feel for the brands, their employees, and stakeholders.
Everyone has their own struggles and challenges, and we cannot all change everything we want to change in the world.
Instead, we all have the power to, at the very least, change ourselves, and potentially help change someone else.
All I know is that our most powerful tool is that a) we are all alive b) we all have a voice and c) we all can sacrifice for what we believe in.
We do not possess all the reasons why others use their voice or make their sacrifice.
All I know is that our role is to listen to their voice, and be inspired by their sacrifice.