When We Celebrate Thanksgiving

This is my third year preaching at the Midcoast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, at the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta, Maine.
This year, I decided to update a blog entry from last year about the national and personal history and moral implications of Thanksgiving.

This.

This is my favorite time of the year.

When I worked for a Unitarian Universalist church, I told my bosses, I don’t care about working Christmas Eve till 1 a.m., or Christmas Day, or as long as you want on Easter. All I ask is a five-day weekend for Thanksgiving.

I love Thanksgiving for the crisp snap of the fall air, waking me up from a drowsy, languid summer. I love Thanksgiving for the ingathering of family. Religion is a tricky balancing act in my extended family, but Thanksgiving can be celebrated as a purely secular national harvest festival, with Christian, atheist, Muslim, Unitarian and vegetarian at the table together. I love Thanksgiving for gathering around the table with the people who know me best, to eat mountains of wholesome, homecooked, often mostly homegrown food—turkey, stuffing, gravy, two kinds of potatoes, creamed onions, at least one squash, though Mom always forgets to make something green, plus my favorite cranberry orange relish, and never less than six kinds of pie.

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But just over a year ago, I made a decision to be a little less romantic, a little more clear-eyed about the legacy of Thanksgiving.

You see, throughout the summer of 2017, my partner James and I, both lifelong UUs, had been deeply engaged in conversations about the unmasking of white supremacy culture in the Unitarian Universalist Association. My Facebook feed was full of the testimonials of people of color who had been passed over for employment, of the religious educators inviting us to examine and challenge the culture of white supremacy that is at the foundation of our Association, that is holding us back from fully living out the Principles we covenant to affirm and promote. We continue to pursue these important conversations, as you do here at Midcoast.

On top of these faith-based discussions, in the fall of 2017, I became an adjunct professor of freshman English as a Second Language, also called ESL. From my first day, I was acutely aware of being the only white person in my classroom … especially after James said to me, “You realize it’s now literally your job to teach and enforce a culture of white supremacy, right?”

Now, I wouldn’t call it a crisis of conscience, exactly. I do think that it’s important for the eventual success, economic security and, alas, even the physical safety of my ESL students and all students that we give them the tools to navigate the waters of white supremacy culture in which they must swim, from the Anglo-American standards of academic writing to the turns of phrase expected in the work world. I also think we should be doing so in a transparent, critical way that acknowledges the racist and classist history and persistent underpinnings of the system.

I also understand it to be part of an ESL teacher’s job to teach about American culture. So, for the abbreviated week before Thanksgiving break last year, I designed a lesson around the story of the fortunate Pilgrims and the happy Indians celebrating their successful collaboration with a huge feast.

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Now, this almost-400-year-old story is personal for me because, you see, I am a Pilgrim. One Quebecois refugee great-great-grandfather notwithstanding, I am as Anglo-Saxon 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, and while only half my lineage is descended from the first trans-Atlantic passengers of the Mayflower, the Converses got here as soon as they could, soon enough to be founding members of the town of Reading, Massachusetts, alongside others of my forebears, in 1644. [CORRECTION: The Converses actually were among the founders of the neighboring town of Woburn, Mass., in 1642.]

My ancestor Elizabeth Tilley, one of the last original Pilgrims to die, was the mother of ten hearty children who all lived to adulthood, giving her eighty-eight grandchildren to love. I’m ashamed to say that her husband, my forefather John Howland, was one of the first Pilgrims to steal from and murder Wampanoag people in 1620. A harder reckoning still is coming, I know, when eventually I find the courage to read Of Plymouth Plantation, the account written by my Pilgrim forefather Gov. William Bradford. Because of these Pilgrims, I have been an American since the beginning of immigration here, part and parcel of all our triumphs as a people, and all our sins, too.

“My people” prospered — They say that Elizabeth Tilley has more American descendants, including half a dozen former residents of the White House, than any other woman in the history of this country. “My people” prospered on the near-genocide of the Wampanoag people, who since 1970, mark Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning.

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My family has, at least once a generation, 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 prospect that my forebears most certainly profited, whether directly or indirectly, 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 treasurer of a major company, where he was able to restructure the pension plan to his benefit and everyone else down to the janitors and accounting clerks, those GI benefits were denied to many veterans of color, exacerbating the incredible racial wealth gap that persists in America today.

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.

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This year, for example, I’ve been thinking more than usual about my great-great-great-Aunt Louisa and what she apparently called her “Indian-dark hair.” As a child, I had been mesmerized by romanticized stories of Squanto at Plymouth Plantation, of Pocahontas in Jamestown, of Sacagawea on the Louis & Clark expedition, and for years I romanticized Aunt Louisa’s hair as a hypothetical skeleton in our closet. What if there were helpful, loving Indians hidden away in my own lineage?

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren last month publicized her own Native American ancestry, I understood the exultation of proving those family stories to be true, and I listened raptly as she described her grandparents’ struggles with discrimination because of her grandmother’s Native heritage.

But with the help of some amazing Facebook friends, I also began to read the words of Native American women about Sen. Warren’s revelation, and particularly the words of Dr. Kim TallBear of the Santee Dakota people, and Associate Professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. In an interview with New Scientist magazine, Tallbear said,

“There’s a great desire by many people in the US to feel like you belong to this land. I recently moved to Texas, and many of the white people I meet say: “I’ve got a Cherokee ancestor.” …That worries us [Native Americans] in a land where we already feel there’s very little understanding about the history of our tribes, our relationships with colonial powers, and the conditions of our lives now.

“I think there is a suspicion by many Native Americans that scientists, who are largely not Native American, want to turn our history into another immigrant narrative that says “We’re all really immigrants, we’re all equal, you have no special claims to anything.”

Speaking of her own family, Tallbear added,

“We have a particular cultural identity, based in a land that we hold to be sacred. That’s what gives our lives meaning. It’s what makes us who we are.”

My family has built our identity on this land, too. But my family has built our identity on a foundation cemented, in part, by pillage and carnage and ongoing systemic oppression.
As a pre-teen, I went to summer camp on the campus of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, not far from the most notorious of the many residential schools for Indian children, who were snatched away from their parents, stripped of all their Native clothing and symbols, shorn of their hair, beaten for speaking their native languages, and forcibly baptized as Christians. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” was the motto of those schools, funded by taxes paid in part by ancestors whose cheeks I have kissed.

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So, I told my students the story of the fortunate Pilgrims and the happy Indians celebrating their successful collaboration with a huge feast.

I told them the story, and then I said, “Most of that’s a lie. Yes, my ancestors came to Massachusetts in 1620. Yes, half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, of disease and starvation. Most of the rest of the story we tell ourselves 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, killing at least 90% of the indigenous New England population in the years before the Pilgrims’ arrival, including Squanto’s entire village. My students brought up the concept of Americans living on stolen land, and I agreed that it was true.

And I did this all with my heart in my throat, because this is the story of my family, stealing that land and sitting on it for four hundred years, with their smallpox and measles and influenza. And Elizabeth Tilley and John Howland’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were no more responsible for where and into what circumstances they were born than I was … or Trayvon Martin, or Sandra Bland, or Rosa Parks, or Frederick Douglass, or Sitting Bull. Neither privilege nor oppression are earned in the culture of white supremacy – they are birthrights.

But what I do with the years and the power and the privilege that I have in this country is my responsibility, and an opportunity to learn from the past and be better.

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There is an ancient Iroquois philosophy, a part of the oral tradition called The Great Law of Iroquois Confederacy, upon which parts of the U.S. Constitution are based. Called the Seventh Generation Principle, this philosophy says that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future, and that the abundance for which we are thankful today is rooted seven generations in our past. Imagine if we judged all our actions, all our words, all our choices by the impact they will have 150 years in the future.

It’s an impossible task. We can barely even begin to imagine what the world and this nation will be like when my toddler niece is my age.

I’m still struggling to find meaningful ways to counteract the lasting effects of my family and country’s history. I vote thinking of a better future I’ll never see. I counsel new refugees on careers extending into a future that is uncertain and unclear, but knowing that they have already found a better future in some ways. I continue to talk to my ESL students about America’s history with race and privilege, in ways that I hope are constructive and will help them navigate the culture of white privilege and supremacy that surrounds them here.

It’s an impossible task, just as undoing the sins of our forebears is an impossible task. But I invite you to join me in attempting it anyway, in attempting to make choices that reach seven generations into our collective future and seven generations into our collective past.

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