The Wikipedia article for Thanksgiving has the usual crap about Puritans, but also some crap about Spanish Thanksgivings in sixteenth century Florida. And, of course, there’s the obligatory one-liner about people of “progressive political persuasion” protesting Thanksgiving and a link to the National Day or Mourning entry, which is also pretty bad in the way that most Wikipedia entries that cover contentious issues are bad because they try to be objective and balanced but ultimately fail. What’s missing in the Thanksgiving entry is what’s obvious to the cultural historian in me there was no “first Thanksgiving” because “Thanksgiving” is a modern (re)construction, an act of historical interpretation that has always been used for explicitly political and economic purposes.
To whit: the real reason we celebrate Thanksgiving today has nothing to do with Puritans and native peoples. We all know that never happened. The Puritans “first Thanksgiving” was just an ordinary, “hey look, we survived another year, let’s eat and pray to God that we can survive the coming, terrible, crappy winter” dinner celebration, amen. It took children’s poet Sarah Josepha Hale’s persistent letters to five successive presidents to get Abraham Lincoln to finally pass a law mandating the establishment of the very first, actual Thanksgiving. And in his proclamation, he doesn’t say a goddamn thing about Puritans or Indians. Moreover, the reason that Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November and not the last Thursday is because in 1939 November happened to have five Thursdays, so Franklin Roosevelt pushed it back a week in the hopes of jump-starting the Christmas shopping season and getting the country out of the Depression. (It didn’t work.)
The point of all this, the reason I bring it up, is that we always do well to remember that history is an act of interpretation from our present perspective. That is to say, it is from right here, right now, in whatever culturally, historically specific location I find myself, that I look back in time and interpret what the events of the past “mean” and how they effect my current situation. All history does this. All history is revisionist. And all history is told from a particular point of view to support a particular person’s agenda. (Especially this particular blog post.)
It is helpful for (white) people to think about Thanksgiving as a time when native people’s got together with Puritans because it creates a story of American history that mitigates the reality of racial oppression and genocide. But this mitigation, this literal “white washing” of history, comes at a cost. It helps us overlook the reality of racial oppression and genocide.
And yet. And yet. History is all about how you look at it. History is all about how you interpret it. We have a federally mandated national holiday called Thanksgiving because of something Lincoln did. Lincoln, usually noted for his “freeing of the slaves” (which he didn’t really do) is better known as the President who kept the United States united and thereby strengthened the role of the federal government and minimized the import of state governments. (Ah, ironies of history! How do I love thee?) Prior to Lincoln, several states, mostly in New England, had religiously motivated, autumnal celebrations that might, from our present vantage point, look something like Thanksgiving. But these were local affairs. Lincoln, at the insistence of a woman, let’s not forget, made it national.
But rather than waxing on about the brotherhood of man, rather than saying, “whitey and the Indians got together, so can we!” in his 1863 establishment of the Thanksgiving holiday, he talks about, to be frank, being thankful for what you’ve got. He goes on and on about how screwed up the country is (we were, after all, in the middle of the Civil War), but despite how dire and terrible things are, the year “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” And that we should be thankful for what we do have, and trust that the nation will be healed.
I know that this country is far from perfect. And I know that our history is one of violence and oppression. But I also know that in the midst of this violence, that despite the oppression, there have always been glimmers of hope, the possibility of justice. We would do well to remember John Brown and Angela Davis, bell hooks and Tim Wise. Their stories are rarely told. But they’re the ones who do all the work. And for them, I am thankful.
There is much work to be done. For now, this weekend, I am going surround myself with those that I love, my family and my community, be thankful for what I’ve got, and hope for justice and love in the future.