Family, Food, and Football: What Isn’t There to Love?
Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. Like most American born kids, I was indoctrinated into a culture where Thanksgiving is a celebration of an idealized American identity. The holiday is marketed as a representation of the best of American values even though it is built on a lie. Despite my knowledge of the holiday’s inherent hypocrisy, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying many aspects of the celebration. Like so many Americans, my willingness to participate in this holiday stems from an association with its positive components: food and family.
At my elementary school, there was a great fuss made over Thanksgiving, with a series of annual rituals consisting of songs, food, and costumes. Kindergartners dressed up in stereotypical Indigenous clothing and first graders wore the outfits typically associated with the modern idea of pilgrims. We then begrudgingly sang in front of the entire elementary school during assembly. Kindergartners were notoriously out of control and it was no coincidence that they were posed as Indigienous peoples in this deeply problematic pageant.
Although just a year apart, the first graders had undergone an additional year of formal education so they were deemed civilized and calm enough to play the role of pilgrims. Following our song routine, tables in the lunchroom were pushed together to allow kindergartners and first graders to share a meal on a long communal table to mirror the imagined Thanksgiving feast.
The Dark History of Thanksgiving
This censorship of the violent history of this country was conducted following a unit in our social studies class meant to teach us about the relationship between “Native Americans” and European colonizers. Affectionately branded as “pilgrims,” the European colonizers were framed simply as immigrants seeking freedom. In our lessons, the pilgrims were the sympathetic characters with whom my classmates and I were meant to identify. In contrast, Indingenous people were presented as exotic and our teachers spent most of the time teaching us about beads and “Native American names,” which we all chose for ourselves based on our interests. I was Hungrywolf.
Rather than anchoring an education plan with significant historical events, our class spent the majority of our time making costumes after learning about the fantastical myth of pilgrims and Indigenous people celebrating the first Thanksgiving with a feast. Feathers were glued onto headdresses and paper buckles were affixed to black paper hats. Paired with our flimsy appropriative dress was a dreadful rendition of the minstrel classic, “Turkey in the Straw.” Despite the song’s deeply racist roots, it has become a Thanksgiving staple.
I attended a K-12 private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I was one of two black people in my entire grade. As a five year old, I was unable to comprehend the contextual significance of these rituals in a room full of white people, but now I reflect in horror and utter disgust. Every year in elementary school, we learned a little bit more about the actual history of colonization in America, but the theatrics surrounding Thanksgiving remained. It wasn’t until high school that the myth of Thanksgiving was finally debunked as a farce and the extreme violent origins of the United States were thoroughly exposed.
With an awareness of forced assimilation, violent relocation, and brutal methods of warfare used in the attempted eradication of Indigenous peoples, my relationship to Thanksgiving was radically changed. No longer was the holiday an innocent celebration of family, but a veiled attempt to erase America’s past sins by constructing a narrative of peaceful colonization.
Colonial Myths of Thanksgiving
The continuous push to feed children the elaborate myth of Thanksgiving in the classroom is a detriment to providing a well rounded education. Popular culture and media already seek to maintain gleeful ignorance surrounding Thanksgiving, utilizing nationally televised parades, cartoon specials, and corporate marketing schemes to support this false narrative. It is impossible to deny the fact America exists on stolen lands, but when a 50-foot balloon of a beloved cartoon dog tears down Central Park West accompanied by a marching band, it becomes a lot easier to ignore.
By directing focus to children through marketing surrounding Thanksgiving, concrete associations are formed with the holiday which are harder to remove once kids eventually learn more about American history. Instilling this influence upon the impressionable minds of kids makes them more likely to embrace the idea of Thanksgiving as a representation of American identity into adulthood.
My memories of Thanksgiving are overwhelmingly positive. I think of playing football with my cousins, seeing the growth of my family over a year, eating way too much and being surrounded by love. Yet none of these feelings are intrinsically linked to Thanksgiving, but are simply a byproduct of having people commune in a single place. We need to remove our personal attachments from Thanksgiving, because it is ultimately just an excuse to gather and overeat. Significance and celebration can be assigned to any other day.
I have a very large extended family, my mom is one of 8 siblings, and Thanksgiving is the only occasion the entire family is all together, outside of funerals. For many families, Thanksgiving offers a joyous reason to honor and cherish one another. With the pandemic and current state of the world, we feel this distance to a greater extent, as we won’t be getting together this year. For me, this continued distance highlights the absurdity of marking a single day with the purpose to convene with family and friends. There should undoubtedly be more secular days to celebrate kinship and gratitude, but Thanksgiving should not be one of them.
The Truth About Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is rooted in exclusion and racism, directly opposing what the festivities are meant to represent, thus hollowing the potential for the holiday to project national harmony. America’s origin story is one of considerable tragedy and ruthless brutality. The failure to acknowledge this truth blatantly disrespects the countless number of Indingenous lives lost and the continued oppression of marginalized identities in this country. Thanksgiving gives Americans the opportunity to disengage from reality and exist in a fantasy, accepting a culture that is complacent and imbued with injustice.
Allowing the perpetuation of a sanitized version of America’s birth is dangerous, as it allows Thanksgiving to exist as a symbol of white supremacy in terms of the effectiveness of western colonialism. Symbolism has immense power in defining a nation’s identity and Thanksgiving embodies America’s dishonesty and failure to make proper retribution for past atrocities committed. For America to move beyond its inception, there must first be a willingness to accept wrongdoing and a crucial step in that admission is deconstructing the American myth of Thanksgiving.