For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.
Yet, even though many do not intend to celebrate the historical underpinnings of the holiday, they nevertheless allow patriotic, racist lies to continue UNLESS they at least acknowledge the true history of the genocide upon which this nation was ‘founded.’
Thus, while I often gather with extended family on this day, I do not call it ‘Thanksgiving’ any longer – even the name is abhorrent to me now. For lack of a better term, I call it a ‘holiday,’ as it is, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs (and jobs where we get such days off) a holiday. However, ever since my kids have been old enough to talk, we have spent the day discussing the true history of Thanksgiving and the fact that this country’s bounty comes at the expense other peoples and nations – as it always has done. This is not enough, and this pains me. Yet, ‘traditions’ are hard to break – and perhaps more so when one has young children in the house.
I lived out of the country for many years, and thus Thanksgiving was a non-issue. However, when I returned to the US, it soon became a thorn in my side – as soon as, in fact, my children entered pre-school. The way our education system teaches this holiday is detestable. The books and songs, the color in a Pilgrim/Native American handouts, the activities of making Pilgrim/Native American headwear, the potluck feasts — all of these work to perpetuate the historical lie that we should be “giving thanks” for our history. In one book my daughter read in her early school years, the Indians (the term the book used) were “so happy” when the “nice Pilgrims” arrived. This lie is widespread in our refashioning of the Thanksgiving narrative; it is the lie put forth in Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving (as noted by Renee at Womanist Musings) as well as via virtually all pre-college curriculum.
As an aside, I offer each year to visit my children’s classrooms to teach a non-sweetened history of Thanksgiving and/or to talk about Native American history – my offer has yet to be accepted. I make a similar offer when my kids study the California missions. Again, no teachers have taken me up on this. This refusal to incorporate the true history, the ugly, reality version of history, helps to, as Robert Jensen argues, maintain our tooth-decayingly sweet American mythos:
“Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.
History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology.
History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.”
In Jensen’s framing, learning and spreading the truth of history does not absolve us, but at least it obfuscates the trend we are in now – that of genocide, warfare, enslavement, and empire repeating itself.
As a reminder of this endless repetition, in a fairly recent Thanksgiving travesty, GW Bush showed up in Iraq for a photo job, fake turkey in hand. In Mitchel Cohen’s estimation, “in one fell swoop, the new Conquistador had tied to history’s bloody bough the 511-year-old conquest of the ‘New World’ whose legions smote the indigenous population in the name of Christ with last year’s bombardment and invasion of Iraq and the torture-detentions of prisoners of war at U.S. military bases.”
The linkages between our present acts and past acts convey that we are still a country guided by the white supremacist notion of manifest destiny, and whether those in power are perpetuating the killing of Native Americans or Iraqi civilians, their aims and motivations are similar: power and greed. GW Bush is merely a modern day pilgrim, a born again one, who similarly uses his religion to justify persecution.
The occupation of Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the rampant levels of human enslavement globally, all of these are history repeating, in endless iteration, the mistakes we have yet to learn from…
So, what would a socially just response to Thanksgiving be? Well, Jensen argues for “a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth.” Yet, he also accedes that given our immersion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, that this is unlikely. Given this, he argues that “the question for left/radical people is: What political activity can we engage in to keep alive this kind of critique until a time when social conditions might make a truly progressive politics possible?”
His answer is that we must speak truth to power and his writing suggests we must do this with everyone we meet – whether it is the well-wisher at the grocery store or to our own grandmother. Yet, Jensen realizes this is no easy feat. However, as he notes, “we need to help each other tell the truth, even when the truth is not welcome.” This part of his answer is something I think those of us who would like to resist the historical grounding of the holiday are able to do, in ways both small and large. We can speak the truth, write the truth, whether amongst our own friends and family or via more public venues.
And, as PetPluto over at Art at the Auction in the post “Why I like Thanksgiving” muses, we can attempt to separate the historical origins of the day to how we personally celebrate it. PetPluto uses the analogy of marriage, and how it has changed as an institution to frame this argument:
“I think we should all be aware that the modern marriage is a relatively new invention, and that sometimes what came before was less than pleasant. But since the modern marriage is, generally speaking, a different animal all together, there is the ability to celebrate it when two people decide that they do want to tie that knot. Same thing with Thanksgiving. The modern Thanksgiving is less about the historical event of breaking bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims and more about family.”
I agree with this sentiment, but, as with the institution of marriage, I am growing more and more critical of the supposed ‘good sides’ of these societal traditions. Perhaps I am growing more radical as I age…
PetPluto further suggests that the historical remembering is a job for us as a nation, rather than a burden that should be taken on by the holiday itself: “It is our job to remember how we got here as a nation – both the good and the bad. But it is Thanksgiving’s job, and holidays like it, to remind us that what we get in return for being part of a family – blood or made – for being thankful and being giving…”
I like this idea, but unlike PetPluto, I am not able to put aside “liberal guilt about this one day.” Yet, as I learned from Peggy McIntosh, guilt does nothing to change things. Guilt is a pointless emotion unless it spurs one to take action. So, what will I do with my feminist/progressive guilt? Well, for this year I am writing about it (and in previous years I have taught about it), which certainly isn’t much. But, for next year, who knows… As my family and I gather tomorrow and discuss the non-saccharine version of history, I will ask two people who always give me very honest advice how we should change our observation of this day – my nine year old daughter and my twelve year old son.
As we work through this conundrum together, I hope to instill in my kids a yearning to know the real history of our world and, moreover, to yearn to change the world so that holidays CAN be just – so that they can be celebrated without guilt. Yet, I will keep Jensen’s reminder that “We don’t define holidays individually — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning” in mind. For, if this reconsideration of holidays is not done by the wider culture, not too much will be gained.
However, I disagree with Jensen’s contention that “When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists it, publicly and privately.” I don’t agree with this either/or construction. My family’s private redefinition is not “pretend,” it is the beginning of resistance – a resistance that, if enough people start to similarly resist, has the potential to create a cultural shift.
I do not mean to suggest that this would be enough to ‘make up’ for the genocide of indigenous people that founded this nation. Nothing would be enough. Yet, an attitude of rectifying the wrongs of the past, of refusing to swallow the sugar-coated version of history, of not blindly ‘giving thanks’ for one’s own privileges would at least be a start.
In an earlier piece, Jensen reasoned that “As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.”
This too is something those of us who are reconsidering the holiday can do – we can endeavor to be aware of how the holiday affects not only our individual psyches, but the collective psyche of our culture. And, while arguments may be had over who does the cooking and who sits and watches football, over the patriarchal carving ritual where men are honored (and often photographed) for their knife skills while female’s hours of work in the kitchen oft are expected rather than lionized, while many will comment on their ‘overweight’ bodies, what most will NOT do is consider the constricting effects of this celebration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy on their minds…
At my house, we will certainly consider the “constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.” We will also look forward to the day when we truly live in a post-colonial world, when imperialism has been eradicated, and when conquests such as those of the white intruders on this land, what is now called the United States, no longer take place. This will be a time for a true thanksgiving celebration.
Addendum: Before a final read through for errors, I took a wee break and went to catch up on some much needed blog reading. At Don’t Do That, I came across this great link to a piece on “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving.'” Check it out!