I can still hear my dad bless the food before we dug in. I can see grandma baking her pies. My aunt mixing her famous cornbread dressing. There was a kitchen full of cooks putting the finishing touches on a fabulous meal. The food seemed to take forever to cook but about one minute to devour.
Thanksgiving was my second favorite holiday growing up. You could probably guess which one was first. But. As I grew older I had more and more questions about this holiday.
What is the True meaning of Thanksgiving? Why are we celebrating the slaughter of American Indians? Is it okay for black folks to celebrate, given our history of oppression by the same culture? Is there any way to separate “turkey day” from its racist roots?
Lying To Ourselves
Celebrating this holiday takes a major rationalization for those who are socially conscious. Children learn the false, sanitized version of the story. It paints the Pilgrims feasting peacefully with local Indians. They tell us of the early settlers desire to share their bountiful harvest with their neighbors. As if to thank the natives for showing them how to survive in the New World.
This image presents a faulty view of the founding of this country. As if the Indians just willingly gave up their land. This story obscures the real history. One of violence and oppression. It also manages to both legitimize and whitewash our country’s terrible actions toward its native people.
The story of the first Thanksgiving is simply a tall tale whose purpose is to make us feel good. If we concentrate on the purity and goodness of the pilgrims we won’t have time to think about all that came next. Genocide against the American Indians.
The story has a white perspective. But I guess that’s about the only one available. Victors write the history. As kids we’re told the very moving story of how the Pilgrims braved the shores of an unknown world to escape religious persecution. Surely, your heart has to go out to them. So as youngsters we begin to identify with the Pilgrims and not the Indians.
The Thanksgiving Myth
There are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving feast. Governor William Bradford’s account was actually written 20 years after the fact. So what actually happened isn’t all that clear. But it’s safe to say the events of that day were nothing like the lies they tell us in grade school.
brought 90 Wampanoag Indians with him to dine with the 52 colonists. They were most likely not invited guests. The pilgrims’ harvest had been a good one. So they really didn’t need the five deer the Indians brought with them as an offering.
There had been a great deal of tension between the two groups that fall. A few days before the feast, a group of pilgrims led by Miles Standish went after the head of a local Indian leader. Another sign of tension was the 11 foot high wall around the entire Plymouth settlement. Obviously, these folks really didn’t want Indians around.
It’s more likely the Chief and company crashed the party. Since there‘s safety in numbers, the Wampanoags made sure they showed up in force. Any other way would have been risky.
Not long after the feast, Mr. Standish did manage to murder an Indian named Wituwamat. Standish visited a local Indian village pretending to be a trader. He cut off the man’s had. Standish stuck his gross prize on a pole at Plymouth. There it remained for years.
For good measure he killed the man’s brother and hung his body from the rafters. This is when the local Indians gave the Plymouth settlers the name Wotowquenange. This means “cutthroats” or “stabbers”.
The First Official Thanksgiving
The original Thanksgiving feast was nothing like the tale we heard as children. It was actually a three-day event. The Plymouth settlers where known to be drunks. Each man in the colony drank at least a half gallon of beer per day. They preferred it even to water. So you know this was one wild party. This was also the first and last Thanksgiving with Indians and colonists dining together. That we know of.
The first official Thanksgiving didn’t happen until 1637. In that year Governor John Winthrop established a day of feasting to celebrate a terrible event. A group of white men had safely returned from a massacre of the Pequot Indians in what is now the state of Connecticut. The settlers killed over 700 Pequot. They slaughtered men, women and children alike.
The Pequot massacre is the origin of our current Thanksgiving holiday. For obvious reasons, many of our native brothers and sisters refuse to celebrate this day. Many Indian peoples see it as a day of mourning.
Links To Slavery
The Pequot Indians were neighbors of the Plymouth colony. When whites arrived the Pequot were more than 8,000 strong. By the time of the Pequot Massacre their numbers were just over fifteen hundred.
Smallpox was a disease foreign to native Americans. They had no built up immunity like the white settlers. About 70% of the Pequot Tribe died of this new deadly disease. When the pilgrims arrived they saw plenty of cleared land with no people working or living on it. It was simply theirs for the taking. A Smallpox epidemic is the reason why.
When the settlers massacred the Pequout they executed many prisoners. There were few survivors of any kind. Women and children lucky enough to live through the slaughter became slaves in the West Indies. The Pequot prisoners were simply handed off to Indian tribes who were loyal to the English.
The Plymouth Colony had plenty of other links to the African Slave Trade. Throughout the British colonies there was a long established practice of enslaving the natives. Some to provide labor. Some became slaves in the West Indies.
This shameful tale of slavery and genocide should disturb the conscious of all people. African Americans should be especially effected. We are painfully familiar with such degradation.
Conflicts and Contradictions
Thanksgiving is not the only American holiday black folks should have a problem with. July 4th is a celebration of white men winning their independence from a foreign power. Blacks aren’t given much credit for the role we played.
Christmas is a religious holiday. It celebrates Christ’s birth. America cruelly warped the Christian message and used it to justify both African slavery and genocide against the Indians. So even this joyous celebration has roots in racial subjugation.
American history is full of contradictions. This country exists because its founders rose up against the tyranny of a colonial power. Founding fathers authored great documents about freedom and liberty while denying the same for people of color.
The love that Blacks feel for Thanksgiving is a kind of blind love. We happily accept the sanitized version of the holiday while ignoring the one thing we have in common with Native Americans. The fact that we have both suffered great oppression at the hands of the white majority. By celebrating Thanksgiving, we desert our native bothers and sisters in service to the dominant culture.