As an African American Who Loves Thanksgiving, Must I Simply Ignore the Historical Suffering of the Wampanoag and Pass the Sweet Potato Pie?

Image of sweet potato pie: RebeccaVC1/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Like clockwork, my social media accounts are slowly being populated with posts about the true origins of Thanksgiving or the need to declare the fourth Thursday in November a day of mourning in solidarity with the Wampanoag, the Native American nation central to the Thanksgiving myth. My social media network is largely composed of childhood friends, former classmates, and fellow academics. This annual ritual of Thanksgiving counter-protest eventually gives way to a divide between those sharing favorite holiday recipes and those who say Americans (particularly Black folks) need to “wake up” and see the truth about Thanks-killing (as they choose to dub the holiday).

I have an admission. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. The combination of the four F’s (family, friends, food, and football) has made it one of my favorite times of the year. As for the Thanksgiving myth itself, it hasn’t figured into my consciousness since childhood when I was making hand-turkey paintings and participated in grade-school re-enactments complete with construction paper Pilgrim hats and Native American feather headdresses. Throughout my adult life I’ve struggled with the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday as a familial celebration while being completely aware of the injustices suffered by the Wampanoag and Native Americans in general. 

As others have noted here on RD, Thanksgiving is largely the Protestant origin myth of the United States, although it occurred thirteen years after the founding of the first permanent British settlement at Jamestown in 1607. The 1620 Plymouth landing also places the myth one year after the arrival of “twenty and odd” Africans of Ndongans background (from modern-day Angola) in the Jamestown colony in 1619. With the 400th year anniversary celebrations in 2019, the date 1619 has entered the American public consciousness as a new front in the ever-expanding culture wars, most prominently with the publication of the New York Times’ 1619 Project and the short-lived 1776 Report which has morphed into the arch-conservative 1776 Project.

The elevation of the year 1619 into the public consciousness only offers a partial glimpse of the date’s ominous meaning within African-American religious thought. The oft-quoted quip by Malcolm X from a 1964 speech, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us,” has long served as a reminder to Black folks and others that the ancestors of African Americans were already present in this country when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.  

Within some streams of Black religious nationalist numerology, the date 1619 serves as fulfillment of biblical prophecy based on their reading of Genesis 15:13, “And [God] said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” Therefore, the date 1619 is imbued with mythic and numerological significance for Black folks who subscribe to Black chosenness beliefs.

However, if I’m allowed to riff on Du Bois’ concept of double-consciousness, African Americans are composed of “warring” 1619 and 1620 souls that place them simultaneously within the realm of the oppressed and as celebrated participants in the dispossession of Native Americans. Take, for example, the Timesstory about Liberian-Americans’ struggle with the continued observance of Thanksgiving given their own history as descendants of ex-slaves who colonized territory along the coast of West Africa, dispossessing the indigenous populations for what would become Liberia. But Liberian Americans aren’t alone in this paradoxical relationship to Thanksgiving; African Americans who remained on this side of the Atlantic equally grapple with this contested legacy.  

During my adolescence, Black history programs often highlighted the roles that “forgotten” explorers such as Esteban the Moor and York played in the settlement of the western hemisphere. Like their white counterparts, as Black school children we were taught to celebrate the bravery of these African explorers who helped settle the “New World.” Even my own hometown erected a statue in honor of York in 2003 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s expeditions. Similarly, I was taught to celebrate the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers who were participants in the pacification of Plains nations as Anglo-American unification was achieved in the latter half of the 19th century.  

The complicated relationship between “black” and “red” peoples of the Americas is seen in the First Peoples being both sites of refuge and enslavement for people of African descent. Simply put, once we step outside of the realm of myth, history gets messy with heroes and villains giving way to acts of self-determination by dispossessed and disenfranchised people trying to exist within an ever-expanding white settler republic. It isn’t always easy to know who to root for.

Perhaps, like many African Americans, my attachment to Thanksgiving is simply residue of the relative respite that enslaved Africans gained during the holiday season from some of their labors, however minimal. According to the African-American Registry, 

“In October 1863, months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation earlier in the year; President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to officially celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Before the proclamation, Thanksgiving was also a period where slaves would often try to escape due to the ending of crop season; but with the new law, it morphed into a time where newly freed Blacks could come together.” 

As such, Thanksgiving, like Decoration Day (Memorial Day), became post-emancipation holidays that were added to the larger constellation of antebellum African-American observances that we see in Negro Election Day, Militia Training Day, and the Pinkster (Pentecost) festival.

But I am forced to ask myself, Am I guilty of the same hypocrisy as the “heritage not hate” argument of Confederate flag supporters? Does my desire for turkey, cornbread dressing, collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, and a slice of sweet potato pie with friends and family on the fourth Thursday in November make me just as complicit as the staunchest Confederate-flag waver, the enthusiastic tomahawk-chopping Atlanta Braves (and Kansas City Chiefs) fan, and the obstinate “it’s still the Washington [Football Team] to me” fan? Sadly, and honestly, my answer must be yes. Yes, I am complicit in the celebration of Thanksgiving at the expense of the Wampanoag.

So it seems our choices are to either ignore the historical suffering of the Wampanoag and pass the sweet potato pie, or cancel Thanksgiving altogether? Are there any suitable alternatives? There’s been only one other holiday that’s given me the same joy as Thanksgiving, and for similar reasons: Passover. The four F’s of Passover: family, friends, food, and freedom (sadly football season ends in February) made this my favorite Jewish holiday. 

However, like Thanksgiving, Passover oftentimes left me with an uneasy sense of celebrating the death of others. To those familiar with the Exodus narrative, the death of the first born and the eventual destruction of the Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds appears to be a straightforward example of divine justice at work. But this narrative even bothered classical rabbinic commentators who noticed the apparent lack of empathy when the Israelites burst forth in the Shirat Hayam (Song at the Sea) which begins with the line, “The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:3) 

According to rabbinic tradition, on seeing the drowning Egyptians the angelic hosts were about to break into song as well when God silenced them with the stern rebuke, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). The lesson gleaned from this rabbinical commentary on the Shirat Hayam is that even when we are being thankful for our own freedom, we should be cognizant of the suffering of others.  

I admit that this isn’t a perfect answer. A Thanksgiving holiday completely shorn from the Plymouth myth would be ideal. Weaning Americans of all backgrounds off the nation’s origins myths is easier said than done. Not because most Americans wish to celebrate the destruction of Wampanoag society as much as they wish to celebrate family, faith, and freedom with food and festivities (and football). 

However, imploring Americans to remember the human cost of Thanksgiving, just as God reminded the angelic hosts of the human cost of Israelite freedom seems to be a start in the right direction. Even if we don’t invoke the Pilgrim myth at our dinner tables this Thanksgiving, we should still remember to reflect on the heavy cost paid by the Wampanoag people and their descendants before we pass that slice of sweet potato pie.