To be certain, there are things, manifold things, for which to be thankful: family and friends, smiles and laughter, surprises and second chances. There is the breath of life that animates lungs, and the distant sun that rubs warmth on burdened backs. There is also the never-ending menu of fresh produce that, as if by magic, erupts from dust to nourish the soul and the clean waters flowing free from the heavens to refresh our seabeds. Our manna derives both from above and below. We have so much to be grateful for, though Thanksgiving is not one of them.
The Thanksgiving story comes to us unusually romanticized: Set in the early 1600s in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story is told as one of hardships survived, where so-called Pilgrims endured their first grueling winter in a captive land to celebrate life in their “New World.” The settlers, as they have come to be called, survived that first winter no doubt due to help received from their indigenous hosts. The people who found and rescued the Pilgrims taught them how to brave the cold; cultivate the riches of winter; find food and shelter; plant kernels of corn; locate, hunt, and preserve game; exhaust the natural resources around them (animal furs, skins, and snow). In addition, the Pilgrims learned other lessons from the indigenous that made life more possible.
The compassion and deep humanity of the Pilgrim’s indigenous hosts are rarely highlighted in the Thanksgiving story. These hosts did not seek to kill strangers shipwrecked in their border or erect walls to keep the strangers out. The indigenous did not call the Pilgrims illegal or alien or rapists or savages (labels that history would suggest did, in fact, apply to some Pilgrims).
For these indigenous people, lives mattered, even the lives of foreign-born people with skin the color of mogra. In their humanity, the indigenous submitted to primal though sublime instincts of kindness—welcoming the stranger who fled foreign borders seeking refuge from the persecutions of tyranny and the confines of an oppressive crown.
Thus, the irony of the Thanksgiving story is obvious: As debates on immigration become hotly contested throughout the globe, the predominant themes of Thanksgiving untold shed light on our own national hypocrisies—a country of strangers condemning strangers, a band of refugees blocking access to other refugees (i.e., people trapped in the world’s darkest and most desperate situations).
Such is the case in Syria (and elsewhere throughout our globe), where people—human beings—are fleeing countries set ablaze. They are seeking safety within borders set away from the global atrocities of terror mostly fueled by Western avarice and the arrogance of our global wars. We’ve now seen babies washed up on distant shores, dead. We’ve heard leading political figures label the descendants of our modern indigenous citizenry, people with colonized accents yet Aztec blood coursing warm through their veins, “rapists.” We’ve fully embraced the rhetoric and violence of division: “us” versus “them.” Yet Thanksgiving has done little to remind us of a time past when we were strangers, and they saved us.
Usually the Thanksgiving story ends in a feast of friends—Indians and Pilgrims. The legend of Thanksgiving finds these “friends” eating together, basking in a kind of strange and ludic harmony. However, we know that this story is as much incomplete as it is fiction.
Though the Pilgrims would persist despite the bitter cold of winter, the light of the indigenous sun would soon set along the Western horizon. While the Pilgrims would learn to live off an old land posthumously made their New World, the indigenous would learn new ways to die. Thus, while the story of the Pilgrims was set to begin, the story of the indigenous was doomed to end.
Only history knows the tragedies we obscure by celebrating Thanksgiving—long forgotten rapes of indigenous wives and of daughters juxtaposed against campaigns of terror that would eventuate in a tragic saga of human annihilation. The children of Pilgrims would steal indigenous lands and plagiarize their technologies. They would plant disease in indigenous blankets, butcher indigenous flesh with weapons of death and mass destruction.
The children of Pilgrims would force the children of the indigenous to walk from one end of their country to the other. They would lay claim to the open indigenous borders—confining indigenous bodies to concentration camps deplorably named reservations (or, as one Native young man put it, “sovereign ghettos”). The children of Pilgrims would kill the indigenous young, put suicide in their thoughts and the slow death of whisky lacking mercy in their cups.
The children of Pilgrims would cut off indigenous tongues and utterly destroy indigenous histories. They would turn the sacred images of indigenous people into their costumes and would batter indigenous shrines into their ruins. The children of Pilgrims would paint indigenous faces onto their mascots, making mockery of people ancient and original to this land—from Cleveland to Jacksonville, from Juneau to the District of Columbia.
Perhaps worst of all, the children of Pilgrims would assume the identities of those they have destroyed—practicing a cruel and wicked alchemy of identity theft. The original Rachel Dolezals of history, they would enroll the flesh of mogra into the census of roses. Not only would they kill or displace almost all people indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, the Pilgrims and the children of Pilgrims would dare to replace them, stealing all that could be precious to indigenous people left behind—a memory, a history, a language, a right to live, a land, and even a separate identity. All became property of the Pilgrim—and the shameful inheritance of her children.
So every year, on the last Thursday in November, we commit time to celebrating a lie. In so doing, we ritualize the most unholy of communions—a national feast in remembrance of a grave and inhuman scandal. Thanksgiving, a holiday that honors forgetting and the genocide of people, is by far as sick as it is superfluous. There is no other way to describe it—to destroy a people and then every year feast in memoriam is beyond calloused; it’s wrong!
Not only does the celebration spit in the eyes of compassion, it disavows the power of gratitude. “Thanks” is a high term denoting praise and indebtedness. It yields best to those things we humans humbly appreciate. The honest prayer of the grateful, “thanksgiving,” then, is a word of reverence, kept sacred by the meek and by those of us who understand the grace and fierce power of gratitude found in the humble recognition for God’s manifold blessings.
Placed in the context of a broken and twisted holiday, that beautiful word—thanksgiving—that awesome submission and prayer, can only mean something crude, tantamount to an insult. That we’d term this holiday—a day who’s emblem is a turkey—thanksgiving is not only sad; the tragedies it obscures make it scary.
The holiday continues primarily because of the fog by which it persist. This fog features our dysconscious consent, a constant of act of indifference to the suffering of others. This indifference is itself a kind of brokenness, a dangerous kind of racism, which according to Michelle Alexander, forms “the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems” (p. 242). It is in this process—the act of becoming indifferent—that Thanksgiving erases the perspectives of hurting, vulnerable, and victimized people. Thus, celebrating Thanksgiving outside historical context and without needed critique is a kind of indifference that reinforces a profound erasure of people and the crimes committed against them.
Many people would love to continue to observe Thanksgiving, though in the comfort of forgetting and through the myth of “colorblindness.” However, remembering history, thus, seeing race whole is not the problem. According to Alexander:
Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. . . . We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. . . . That is a goal worth fighting for. (p. 244)
Every year on the last Thursday in November so many of us cede the fight. On this day, many shall gather and swell their stomachs with food yet little deliberate knowledge of the great historical travesty they help conceal. Many will dine on dishes, not knowing that they are paying tribute to one of the most scandalous events in the history of a nation.
On the last Thursday in November I choose to fast instead of feast. I spend the entire day alone, reflecting and protesting the lavish feasts of systematic amnesia that sweeps the country. Thanksgiving is not a holiday and is certainly not a day for celebration, for it venerates events in which we should not find joy but collective regret—events for which we might beg forgiveness rather than give thanks.
- Alexander, M. (2010). A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.