By now we’ve all had our grand Thanksgiving dinners, reunited with family and friends we may not have seen since before the Pandemic, and have overcome the obstacles of making it back home, if we were unfortunate enough to have traveled for our holiday pleasures. I didn’t want to spoil the day, arguably the most beloved holiday on the calendar, by reminding you that so much of the historical foundation on which it is built crumbles on close inspection.
My friend Howard Mansfield has filled in the gaps in my own knowledge on the subject in his recent highly engaging book called Chasing Eden. One chapter, entitled “The Relief Canoes of 1638: Down River to the Future” begins with the Pilgrims, more accurately known as the Separatists for their deviant religious views, entering an Indian village they name Plimouth. There they help themselves to stores of corn and other valuables left behind by a local tribe probably decimated by the diseases introduced by European fishermen with whom they’ve come in contact prior to the arrival of the Separatists.
There is a dinner, sort of shared, with the local tribe known as the Wampanoags but it is bookended by tales of theft, disease, murder and kidnapping, not the stuff of an untarnished origin myth. The details aren’t important for the moment, but what is significant and generally omitted in the telling of the Thanksgiving story is that the singular event of the meal shared by the local population and the recent arrivals from England lay dormant for more than two centuries when it was resurrected and polished up as a vehicle for uniting a divided country at the height of the Civil War. I’ve skipped over a lot of details included in Howard’s wonderful account, and I’ve probably gotten a few of his well-researched facts wrong, but the point is that so much of what we celebrated last week is a fabrication – turkeys, funny blackhats, buckled shoes and all – deeply offensive to Native Americans who have every right to see this great American celebration in the same light that Palestinians see Israeli Independence Day as a naqba, a disaster and tragedy that marks the loss of their lands and their freedom.
I shared Howard’s essay with Alex Krueger, whose classrooms in Chicago and Los Angeles have made their appearance often in my postings. Most of the contents of Howard’s piece are already familiar to Alex. She has been offering a unit on the true story of Thanksgiving for the last several years, which ended this year with the assignment of writing to a favorite elementary school teacher, telling her what they’ve learned about the trueorigins of the holiday and suggesting some activities and resources she might use so, as a few students said, their younger charges won’t feel when they get older that they had been lied to.
This is precisely the kind of teaching that is currently under attack in so many parts of our country. In the deep blue state of California where Alex teaches, she isn’t likely to encounter any pushback, but elsewhere in America this would be absurdly labeled as Critical Race Theory, meaning the sharing of any information that surfaces imperfections in our allegedly unblemished history. The scrubbing of history is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes unwilling to and incapable of reflecting on their own flawed histories lest they be seen as signs of weakness. Yesterday’s newspaper reported on Vladimir Putin’s efforts to expunge any traces of the story of the gulags to which Stalin deported political dissidents during his brutal regime. In Orwell’s 1984 those dissidents were simply “vaporized,” all mention of them erased from the history books. Topics like the destruction of Native American populations and the centuries of slavery from which so much of our national wealth was derived do not mesh with the idealized portrait of America The Beautiful and therefore cause too much “discomfort” to our children who would feel better if they were sheltered from it all.
Just as I had finished writing those lines, I received an email from my son-in-law Peter Cole to which was attached a piece by David Blight called “Trust the Teachers.” Blight is a historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglas. He was also a high school History teacher for seven years, so he speaks from experience to the challenges of the profession. He says:
Every effective American teacher seeks the trust of society, of parents, and of the young people they teach. Public education as a whole depends on these bonds of trust. Our divisive politics regarding how to teach children about slavery, race, and other difficult subjects in school has broken that trust.
Anyone who has ever taught for one day knows that trust must be earned. Facing a classroom full of 14- or 16-year-olds with varying degrees of attention and preparation on any subject is one of the hardest and most important of all professions….
Parents and Republican politicians should come listen to serious teachers grapple with the question: What is this thing called “history?” History is not a fable told to make us feel good or bad, not a plaything or a pageant of progress toward some goal of equipoise above the human condition. We are always and everywhere in the middle of history; we cannot escape it. In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois made a compelling appeal while writing about Reconstruction: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all of this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
But, all that said, wasn’t there wisdom in that 19th century effort to create a holiday that brings us all together, especially in a country that, like no other, has been constructed out of so many different immigrant shards. In spite of the current worrisome state of the nation, America remains a grand experiment in blending its constituent elements without allowing them to disappear entirely. It thrills me to think of my friends from such diverse backgrounds – Greece, Korea, India, Mexico, Italy, to name a few – all sitting down at their Thanksgiving dinner tables, American at core but each retaining some touch from their roots. My friend Mandy, as proud of her Greek heritage as anyone you’ll meet, tells me that she adds spanakopita to the traditional American menu. My own Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents were initially clueless about how to approach this alien holiday. One memorable year they cooked a goose, which in their culture was the ultimate holiday dish. I can’t recall whether we ever actually graduated to turkey, but there was a continuing recognition that something special needed to be prepared, however that was defined by their own cultural history.
Because of the odd quirks in the lunar calendar, Chanukah is a closer partner this year to Thanksgiving than Christmas. In fact, it will have begun on the Sunday evening before you read this. Celebrating this holiday reminds us that it’s not just American holidays that are adorned with stories and practices that bear little connection to their origins. The Chanukah story as it is told in the Books of Maccabees 1 and 2 are about a victory by a band of Jewish rebels against an occupying power and the reconsecration of their temple. No miracle of oil that lasted eight days, no potato latkes, no dreidls. All of those trappings of the holiday are latter additions, some as late as the 19th century. The core story of the successful rebellion marks a moment of some significance in Jewish history but doesn’t justify the major status that Chanukah has assumed. The credit for that goes to the need for an alternative narrative to Christmas for Jews living in the Diaspora.
Every culture needs its defining stories, ahistorical though they may be. At least the Chanukah tale is spun at no one’s expense, while the Thanksgiving story we’ve grown up with is ripped from the flesh of the Native American populations who were destroyed physically and culturally by the arriving Pilgrims. While we’re rejoicing in the company of family and friends next Thanksgiving, let’s try to focus on the themes of gratitude and reconciliation, rather than the false and damaging stories that have grown up around this holiday.