History is complicated. Facts are, indeed, stubborn things. But sometimes facts get buried in tradition or hidden. Take Thanksgiving, for example.
But first, a message from:
“The Shameless Commerce Division”
This is a shameless plug for “Finding Your Bearings: How Words that Guided Jesus through Crisis Can Guide Us.” I’ve recently discussed it on podcasts by three creative colleagues.
I hope you’ll drop in on the conversations and listen to more of their podcasts along the way.
Now, back to Thanksgiving.
The Complicated History of Thanksgiving
Permanently imbedded in our cultural imagination is the image of the first Thanksgiving in November, 1621. After the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast with their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.
That’s a fact, but there’s more.
Journals obtained by the Florida Historical Society confirm that 55 years before the Mayflower Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth Colony, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, making it the ‘real first’ American Thanksgiving. But in the 18th century, the British won out over Spain and France and the celebration of the Pilgrim’s “thanksgiving” took hold.
But Native Americans remind us that the traditional narrative hides the long and bloody history of conflict that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of the original inhabitants of this land. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.”
Then, in the height of the Civil War, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He urged the “whole American people” to “implore the interposition of the almighty to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it … to full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.” It was, of course, rejected by the Confederacy, but it’s a call we desparately need to hear today!
Most recently, The 1619 Project, has called our attention the 400th anniversary of the day the first slaves where unloaded in Virginia, imbedding the evil of racial segregation and slavery in the earliest roots of our history. (Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.) And, predictably, we’re seeing the negative and sometimes violent reaction of those who would rather live in the myth of our white past rather than give thanks for our increasingly more diverse society with its complicated history.
Kyle, Ahmaud, and Thanksgiving
Yesterday, the Ahmaud Arbery case when to the jury. It follows on the heels of the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. Surrounding the jury verdicts are a truckload of complex facts, emotions, convictions and experiences. Just like the history of Thanksgiving, it is possible for more than one fact to be true at the same time. But in the background are painful and divisive questions about the racism that continues to infect our history even when we (white people) try to deny it.
What if a Black teenager from a different state had shown up in Kenosha with a military style weapon swinging over his shoulder?
What if a white young man had been running through a suburb of Brunswick or had been seen walking through houses under construction?
How might the verdicts be different if either jury had reflected the racial diversity of their community?
How will this piece our history be remembered and retold by people of different races, politicians of different parties, and ranting commentators on social media?
Facts are stubborn things, but how we remember and retell our stories can make a difference.
There has not been a better Thanksgiving since the Civil War for us to heed Lincoln’s call to “commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife,” to search for ways to “heal the wounds of the nation,” and to hope that with all of our religious, racial, and political diversity, we may find our way “to full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
Thanks be to God!