“To cut the heads off of my Indians.”
This was the message I had internalized from the traditional Pilgrims and Indians story that I was taught in school. I wonder, even today, what I got out of that episode since I look more like the Indians than the Pilgrims. I read a newspaper article several years ago that stated the first Thanksgiving was the celebration of a massacre of American Indians, which was easy to ingest given my previous experience. Yesterday, I got an email from my brother that pretty much says the same thing. Somewhere between these two extremes, though, lies the truth.
The first English settlers in the Americas vowed to celebrate a day of thanksgiving to the Almighty annually on the date that they set ashore from their long journey. The Spanish settlers in Florida also celebrated a day of thanks. The much-vaunted and recently downplayed dinner between the American Indians and the Puritans in 1621 was yet another day of thanks. The current American incarnation was “set in stone” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt a little more than half a century past. All of these days, dates and events are about Thanksgiving, but they are giving thanks for apparently contradictory and oppressively irreconcilable events, issues and perspectives.
Why, oh why is this relevant?
It is relevant because historically, the roots of Thanksgiving are so deep in each of the individual cultures that make up the American psyche that we will never uncover them. Even if we could unearth the exact set of events that have morphed into the modern holy-day, we would continue to argue about motive and circumstance and miss the value and the opportunity it presents. In one of the myriad antiquities, some may have celebrated a massacre. In others, they were giving thanks for their own survival. In my family, we haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving in years, in protest of the historic misbehaviors of the United States and some of its citizens. But we have joined together on that fourth Thursday in November with family and friends in thanks for all that we have been given, for the breath that we draw daily, for the love and warmth that surrounds us constantly.
It is relevant because I am thankful, this day, to see the back end of the Bush Administration, with its disregard for human rights, with its callous destruction of life as policy, with its lack of translation of morals and values and beliefs into practice, and failure to participate positively in the world and human communities. I am thankful that I have joined a large contingent of my countrymen and women in a celebration of the founding ideals of the United States of America, and a repudiation of despotism so that my family, my friends, my children have the opportunity to grow free of the oppression of the last eight years.
It is relevant because my family ranges in hue from light-skinded to dark; in language from English to Spanish; in culture from Chile to Mexico through Texas and Louisiana and Washington, D.C. and Maryland and Virginia to California; in employ from hairdresser to professor, from presidential driver to web engineer. My family is a conglomeration of people with a shared, though not identical, history through which and to which we cleave like nursing infants for love, comfort and support.
It is relevant because today is just another Thursday that I am thankful for President-elect Obama’s presence, his leadership and vision, his acquiescence to the larger need and his wish to serve something greater than himself. Like my family, we as a nation are in need of each other, though our histories and views are sometimes different, sometimes disparate, sometimes seemingly at odds.
Today is a day of giving thanks to our ancestors, for their struggles to bear the fruit that is us. It is a day to give thanks to the Almighty, for the breath and breadth that we enjoy. It is a day to forgive the transgressions of the past, even as we work to avoid and alleviate the trespasses of the future. None of us knows just how and when his or her family tradition of giving thanks began. It may be that those days were indeed steeped in the blood of our ancestors, or of our neighbor’s ancestors.
These wrongs we must acknowledge, must take steps to make recompense, must do what is in the end, correct. We must also take the opportunity to see beyond our individual realities, to enjoy and to understand our own small part in the great mosaic
Today, I give thanks that I have the opportunity to do so.