One Pilgrim’s Progress on Thanksgiving

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It’s my favorite day of the year. Gathered around the table with the people who know me best to eat mountains of wholesome homecooked food and a buffet of pies – “A sliver of each, please, Auntie Viv! A la mode, of course!”

Over the years, I’ve celebrated with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, exchange students, classmates, significant others (mine and other people’s), nieces, nephews, godchildren and recently divorced family friends. This year is a smaller celebration with my partner’s family, but last year my parents hosted 19 people, aged 3 to 88, around tables crowded with food mostly grown right there in their own back yard, including the 31-pound heritage turkey, named Thanksgiving by my sister for precisely this occasion. There were leftover turkey sandwiches for a week.

img_1055Later, my sister (also a blogger) and I began writing Thanksgiving the Turkey, a multi-racial lesbian organic heritage farming truth-telling children’s book with local Maine flavor. It may come as no surprise, then, to hear that my politics are sometimes at odds with my feelings about my favorite holiday.

 

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I am a Pilgrim. My great-great-great-aunt Louisa claimed “Indian-dark hair” and for years I romanticized a hypothetical skeleton in that closet, though I’ve come to think of her description as a microaggression instead. One Quebecois refugee great-grandfather not withstanding, I am as Anglo as they come. Nana once traced the Converse line back to one Sir de Conyer, a knight in the Norman army of William the Conqueror in 1066.

I’ve told the story of my foremother Elizabeth Tilley, born into religious persecution in England and then borne across the sea in the belly of the Mayflower. It has been much harder to write the story of my forefather John Howland, who unequivocably stole from and murdered Wampanoag people in the 1620s. A harder reckoning still is coming, I’m sure, when eventually I read Of Plymouth Plantation, the account of my Pilgrim forefather Gov. William Bradford.

“My people” prospered — Elizabeth Tilley has more American descendants than any other woman in history — on the decimation of the Wampanoag people, who since 1970 mark Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning. We have at times stepped up for what’s right — a Union Army officer, my great-aunt who desegregated Harvard Library. All the neighborhood children were welcome any time at one great-grandfather’s dinner table throughout the Great Depression. Someday I’d like to learn more about my ancestor George Smith, health inspector in the notorious textile mills of Lawrence, MA — mills that, in addition to exploiting poor white children, wove cotton that had been harvested by Southern slaves, and later by sharecroppers under the abuse of Jim Crow laws.

I have had to reckon with the idea that my forebears also almost certainly profited from the Triangle Trade that included both slaves and the products of their unpaid labor. I have to consider that, while the G.I. Bill allowed my grandfather to rise eventually to CFO of a major company and restructure the pension plan to his benefit and everyone else’s, those GI benefits were denied to many veterans of color, exacerbating the incredible racial wealth gap we see in America today.

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I can’t undo what my ancestors did, and my white guilt over their legacy doesn’t help anyone. Nevertheless, it brackets my enjoyment of my favorite holiday. I never give it any thought on the third Thursday in November, but on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, maybe on Friday, the weekend…. Even back in September, planning the syllabus for my fall classes. I think more and more often of my family’s role in the history of this country.

In social justice work, we are told to take our cues from listening to oppressed people. When planning a racial justice workshop with a biracial colleague, she said, “I’m going to use the word ‘white supremacy.’ I am.”

“I don’t think you’ll be happy with the reaction,” I said, “but you should absolutely do that. I support you.” In retrospect, perhaps it was inappropriate to qualify my support like that, but I feel confident in the rest of my response. However, oppressed communities are no more monolithic than white people.

One particularly memorable Thanksgiving in elementary school featured a pretty epic food fight … instigated by our hostess, a medicine woman of her father’s people. Miss Lois was an admirable trouble maker of many kinds, not least of all in service to both her father’s people and the local Susquehannock tribe. By the time she moved away, I was still too young and ignorant to think about what it meant for her to celebrate Thanksgiving, but my appreciation for Tlingit, Navaho, Hopi, Cherokee, Algonquin, Sioux, Susquehannock and other native cultures and peoples is deeply indebted to what, in retrospect, were her deliberate, sustained, loving efforts to educate me. (My enduring fascination with Sacagawea and the Shoshone and Mandan people may or may  not be purely my own.)

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Since September, I’ve been an adjunct professor of English as a Second Language. I am acutely aware that I am almost the only white person in the room, the only person “without” an accent, the only one not immediately at risk of profiling in Trump’s America. (Because, #metoo, but I’m still a white woman.) I know my partner was right to point out that upholding a culture of white supremacy is literally my job right now. I can say that I am equipping my students with the tools to succeed in the present reality of white supremacy culture, but I am doing nothing to undermine those norms.

When I wrote my syllabus for this course, however, I knew I had to do something to address the complicated cultural history and assumptions around Thanksgiving. I understand it to be part of my job to impart not only the norms of English language and academic culture, but also to teach something about American culture. I try not to be too political, but I understood from the loud collective groan the first time the name “Trump” came up in class that we share some basic political thoughts. Our liveliest class discussions have been about citizenship, immigration and Latin American revolutionaries.

So, for our academic reading class this week, I told them the story of the Pilgrims and the happy Indians celebrating their collaboration with a huge feast.

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Then I said, “Most of that’s a lie. Yes, my ancestor came to Massachusetts in 1620. Yes, half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, of disease and starvation. Most of the rest of that is not true. It’s the story we tell our children in school, but it mostly didn’t happen that way.” I talked about how European guns and diseases ravaged the Wampanoag and other native populations. The students brought up the concept of stolen land, and I agreed. I gave them the opportunity to say if there was a similar history where they’re from, and a few volunteered some information.

One student reminded us of the 60-second extemporaneous speech he gave a couple weeks ago about Lempira, war chieftain of the Lencas of western Honduras. He rose up against the Spanish Conquistadors, uniting formerly warring tribal factions, and inspiring a wide-spread rebellion until he was killed in 1537. “We don’t have a holiday to celebrate the Spanish!” exclaimed my student with dramatic emphasis on the last. “We celebrate Lempira!”

Several other students, when asked what they celebrate in their countries, all cited their independence days. I wasn’t talking about independence from colonial rule but about the beginnings of colonial rule — the Lempira story more than the Haitian Revolution — but the more I think about it, the more confident I am that they did, in fact, understand my message.

Then I gave them an excerpt from “Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving and Should You?” I think Sherman Alexie’s humor went right over their heads, and it was even harder than usual to say where and how this lesson landed, a truth of teaching that I have long ago made peace with.

My students are exhausted. It’s just past midterms, and most of them are student athletes, some of them recently returned from national finals tournaments. All of this on top of an exhaustion I know all too well, the exhaustion of living day-in and day-out in a foreign language. Mostly they put their heads down, their earphones in, played YouTube videos on their phones. It’s hard to hear over the sound of the HVAC system in our classroom, and even harder to get them to speak up.

Why should they care about Thanksgiving? When I lived abroad, I wanted to know all about the local holidays — why and how they were celebrated, how the stories told about each holiday reflected or failed to reflect historical or present realities. I’ll be the first to acknowledge, however, that my fascination with history and culture is not a universal one.

Nevertheless, for white people like me celebrating Thanksgiving, I think we do have an obligation to learn more, to think critically about what we are doing and why, and how it looks to the people whose oppression this holiday was built.

Whether it’s Teen Vogue or Indian Country Media Network, one of the dozens of lists of children’s books and age-appropriate talking points on Thanksgiving approved by Native people, or Teaching Tolerance and other anti-racist writers (these links are just a small sampling), or the seminal People’s History of the United States and Things Your Teacher Never Told You, it is our obligation to, at the very least, learn about these things.

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