November 22, 2012
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga
LAWT Contributing Writer
The tale of Thanksgiving, like that of Christopher Columbus or George Washington and the cherry tree, is well known to anyone who has spent any amount of time in the United States. "Pilgrims, fleeing from religious persecution in England, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in the 'New World' and, after making it through harsh winters and lack of necessities, held a feast of Thanksgiving for being able to survive."
Although the tale may be well known, the truth of the tale is much more sinister and uglier:
"Thanksgiving Day literally is a holiday celebrating the beginnings of the almost total extermination of an entire race of people, commonly called 'Indians,' and the enslavement, continued oppression and genocide of the Afrikan by European settlers. For over 100 years now Black folks in the United States have joined with the descendants of the same European murder[er]s who enslaved them and systematically all but destroyed the Amer-Indian, in feasting and giving thanks to God for the 'opportunity' to live in one of the most racist, imperialist, and oppressive countries on earth ... Black People celebrating Thanksgiving Day is like the Americans celebrating the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the so-called Jews celebrating the rise of the Third Reich, or the Palestinians celebrating the intrusion of the settler colony of Zionist Israel..."
So wrote the late Dr. Ishakamusa Barashango, author of "Black People and European Holidays: A Mental Genocide," back in 1979.
Nowadays, the tale of Thanksgiving has attempted to include some recognition of the part indigenous peoples (American Indians) played in generously helping the Pilgrims to survive the harshness of life in the "New World," such as Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac's 2001 book, "1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving," published by the National Geographic Society:
"The area surrounding the site of the first Thanksgiving, now known as southeastern Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island had been the home of the Wampanoag people for over 12,000 years, and had been visited by other European settlers before the arrival of the Mayflower. The native people knew the land well and had fished, hunted, and harvested for thousands of generations ... After several meetings, a formal agreement was made between the settlers and the native people and they joined together to protect each other from other tribes in March of 1621."
The authors also write that later, in the fall of 1621, the first Thanksgiving would be held. The celebration lasted for three days and both settlers and members of Wampanoag feasted on deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat. Two years later, the first "religious" Thanksgiving Day occurred when the settlers "gave thanks to God for rain after a two-month drought."
Only a handful of books tell of the destruction of indigenous peoples in order to control the land and resources of the "New World" such as Dr. Barashango's and, the late Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" written in 1980.
Speaking with Tavis Smiley on National Public Radio in 2003, Zinn stated that,
"... the American colonists that came here from the beginning were invading Indian soil and driving the Indians out of their land and committing massacres in order to persuade the Indians that they'd better move. And the history of the U.S. is a history of hundreds of little wars fought against the Indians, annihilating them, pushing them farther and farther onto a smaller and smaller piece of the country. And finally, in the late 19th century, taking the Indians that were left and squeezing them onto a reservation and controlling them."
In addition to outright aggression, Zinn and authors such as Francis Jennings' 1975 work "The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest," show that the settlers' quest for control of the land also benefited from depopulation due to the spreading of deadly diseases. Smallpox, in particular, took its toll on the Indians through physical contact with infected settlers and by the passing on of blankets that the ill had utilized.
Such grisly beginnings are the main reason why many throughout the U.S. refer to the holiday as "ThanksTaking," in acknowledgement of the theft of the land of Native Americans who were here first.
Thanksgiving Day, in all of its sordidness, continued to take shape over the next several centuries, including what many historians cite as the first national day of Thanksgiving, held in 1789, under President George Washington who proclaimed Thursday, November 26 as "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer," to especially give thanks for the opportunity to form a new nation and the establishment of a new constitution - both of which enshrined and were dependent on the unpaid labor of millions of Black Africans who had been kidnapped from their homes throughout the Western Coast of the African continent.
A campaign for Thanksgiving Day to become a national holiday in 1846 was led by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, and Abraham Lincoln declared two national Thanksgiving Days in 1863 - in August to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg, and the other in November to give thanks for "general blessings." Lincoln would issue a proclamation fixing Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday in November.
It would be just before World War II that the holiday of Thanksgiving would have its date fixed thanks to the corporate machine we have now come to identify most holidays with.
Jennifer Rosenberg, 20th Century History Guide editor for About.com, writes that in 1939, "... the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month."
Rosenberg writes that the date change caused such confusion and enmity throughout the country that the United States Congress stepped into the matter. Thus, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
And there you have it; greed in the beginning, with a hefty side of theft and disease, and greed in the end.
SHOULD BLACK PEOPLE CELEBRATE THANKSGIVING?
For Black people in the United States in particular, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw an unprecedented rise in calls to not only study and embrace African heritage and culture, but to reject what many referred to as “euro-American” values and symbols. Men such as Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Fred Hampton and many others pointed out the crass commercialism associated with the holiday season and urged us to look – and keep our money – within our own communities.
Does that mean we shouldn’t ‘celebrate’ Thanksgiving in the Black community? Many Black people, keenly aware of the holiday’s origins and the ironies, utilize the time off from work and school to enjoy the company of their families while acknowledging the holiday’s origins and this country’s history of racist treatment of Black people and others. But there are also many who simply refuse to recognize or celebrate this holiday, seeing that stance as making a statement in solidarity with the Native Americans, the first inhabitants of this land.
During the era of slavery, holidays meant that the majority of slave masters would allow their otherwise captive labor force the opportunity to relax, play, consume liquor and temporarily escape “the troubles of this world.” Rather than pontificating on the meaning of those holidays or the generosity of slave masters, many of our collective ancestors put the holidays to a more practical use: they utilized them as a cover to escape from bondage.
Sarah Bradford, author of “Scenes from the life of Harriet Tubman,” published in 1849 writes that in 1854, “ When Harriet arrived there, it was the day before Christmas, and she found her three brothers … were advertised to be sold on Christmas day to the highest bidder … Christmas came on Sunday, and therefore they were not to be sold till Monday. Harriet … gave them secret notice to be ready to start Saturday night, immediately after dark …”. Harriet’s brothers were discovered missing from the plantation that Monday morning, a full day and a half later.
During that time in many areas of the U.S., Black and Red peoples united into communities to fight a common enemy: the encroachment of whites onto Native American lands and to keep Blacks out of chattel slavery. The Seminole Nation of Florida is perhaps the most well known historical example of such a union.
Whether we enjoy home-cooked meals with loved ones on this date, watch football games or debate the finer points of ideology, we should all take the opportunity to reflect on the political and blood lineages Black people share with the indigenous/Native Americans of this land; our shared history of suffering, and our efforts to unify and forge a new and libratory existence for ourselves and others.