Between the Lines

Perspectives on race, culture, and community.

Thanksgiving's Many and Complicated Needs

Our need for celebration does not trump others' need for justice

I have a hard time with Thanksgiving.

To begin with, I have little tolerance these days for writing/discussion that decontextualizes Thanksgiving from historical events or contemporary meaning. As just one example, I happened to bump into an Esquire article titled "Three Big Thanksgiving Don'ts. I opened it, expecting to learn about a few ways to celebrate with sensitivity to the fact that groups of American Indians in the Northeast mark this day as the National Day of Mourning, while others in the West gather for an annual Unthanksgiving. Instead, I learned that the "three big don'ts" are

  1. Don't get creative with the menu,
  2. Don't even think of not serving Turkey
  3. Don't buy frozen turkey.

The author of this piece also advises that

Whatever you serve, your guests should want to eat in enormous quantities until they're unconscious on your couch. This is the goal.

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If this was a cooking magazine, I'd shrug my shoulders and move on. Cooking magazines/sites talk about cooking. But this piece ran in Esquire, a magazine that is, in its own words, "about the interests, the curiosity, the passions, of men." This is what Esquire thinks men need to know about Thanksgiving? These are the three big things they absolutely must avoid? Such gall. Such privilege!

But progressive/liberal takes on Thanksgiving bother me too. Take, for example, this piece by Robert Jensen, a journalist and anti-racist activist that I hold in high regard (his work on privilege should be required reading). Jensen's piece does not suffer from historical context, but we seem to have not read the same books. According to Jensen, Thanksgiving is

a holiday rooted in a celebration of the European conquest of the Americas, which means the celebration of the Europeans' genocidal campaign against indigenous people.

Did you catch the use of the term "genocide"? It's not accidental. Jensen has used it repeatedly in previous articles, including this one in 2005, in which he argued that

we should atone for the genocide that was incited -- and condoned -- by the very men we idolize as our 'heroic' founding fathers.

Now there is no question that the U.S. government and its citizens have treated this nation's indigenous people dishonestly and inhumanely. In addition to waging many wars, the U.S. government negotiated treaties in bad faith and forcefully removed children from their communities in order to assimilate them (via boarding schools) into American society. And those were the ones who were lucky enough to be alive. There is widespread agreement among historians that an estimated 80% of native inhabitants died from disease as a result of contact with Europeans. It is estimated that millions perished during this time. It's a staggering number of people and a tragic part of this nation's history, a history that most Americans have yet to even acknowledge, much less come to terms with. One does not need to read "between the lines" to realize that, if we are to heal as a nation, this will need to happen. I hope it happens soon.

But Jensen ties this tragedy to Thanksgiving in a way that, in my opinion, is undeserved. Genocide is defined as "the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group." The Pilgrims, as they eventually came to be known, clearly benefited from the two plagues (most likely smallpox) that wiped out over 90% of the Wampanoag inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay. However, the plagues took place before the Mayflower arrived, probably as a result of contact with Captain John Smith who explored this territory in 1614. But though Smith and his shipmates probably caused the plague, they did so unknowingly and probably without any awareness of having done so at the time. The Pilgrims were well aware of their good fortune (the Wampanoag were decimated and could offer no resistance) and they gave thanks to the plague, which, to them, was proof that God was on their side, but this is a far cry from "deliberate and systematic destruction."

My intention is not to give the impression that the Pilgrims were morally blameless. The colonists appropriated the deserted cornfields, raided and robbed Indian houses (New England Indians did not live in teepees), and dug up Indian graves, from which they took bows, dishes, bowls, and other items. There is evidence that many did these things with a heavy heart and with intention to pay for what they took out of necessity, if they could find the rightful owners. Others took delight in the looting and occasional violence. As today, the Plymouth Colony had all types.

But, in this context it should also be noted that Pilgrim-Indian relations mostly started on a positive note. The Plymouth colonists usually paid the Indians for their land, and, in some instances, settled Indian towns because the Indians invited them to do so, as protection against other tribes. They did not cause the plague and were as baffled about its origins as the Indians, and like the Indians, suffered from diseases such as scurvy and pneumonia, so much so that half of them died within their first year. Many also developed strong friendships with the Wampanoag, relationships that seemed to have been characterized by mutual respect and loyalty.

It is this mutually beneficial relationship and the bountiful harvest that the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims celebrated during the three days in 1620 that we now refer to as the first Thanksgiving. And, as far as I can tell, that first Thanksgiving really was a joint celebration of goodwill and gratitude. Despite their many differences, two peoples came together in peace and mutual assistance that year. That peace had a real foundation and would last 50 years before relations turned sour with the start of King Philip's War. What came after was tragic and shameful, but isn't that first remarkable year, a year that led to a half century of peace, worth celebrating?

Thanksgiving Day

The thing is, history aside, I'm thankful for Thanksgiving for personal reasons. I appreciate a day in which we, as a nation, remind ourselves of all the things we are grateful for. It's something worth doing more than once a year, but certainly at least that often. And for me personally, Thanksgiving is also the day that my family has always celebrated our being in the United States. We arrived from the Soviet Union in late November of 1977. My parents were about the same age then as I am now. They arrived not knowing an American soul, with barely any money, broken English, a few suitcases, a six-year-old, an elderly parent (my grandma) and a boat-load of dreams about life in the United States. That first Thanksgiving that year was an opportunity to express appreciation for being in "America" and give voice to some of those dreams, and each Thanksgiving thereafter became part of a family tradition of appreciation...and dreams. I want to continue to honor this family tradition. I want Thanksgiving to continue to be a joyful day.

But, of course, the day is not joyful for everyone. I do recognize that for many, if not all, American Indians, Thanksgiving is not a time of celebration but a time of sadness and regret -- a yearly reminder of how European settlers changed their way of life. I cannot pretend this is not so or assert that my need for celebration trumps their need for mourning...and justice. I want to honor both their needs and mine. Every year I struggle to do this in a way that is neither tokenizing nor self-congratulatory. This year, I offer up this blog. I'm hoping that my readers might offer some good ideas for the future, not only for me, but for all of us.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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