The diversity of America shows up on Thanksgiving dining tables as new immigrants prepare and share the dishes from their homeland… People have something to be thankful for. I am thankful for family and friends…and for all the voters who in the last midterm election trooped out to vote and moved the country away from a disastrous and distressing path of Fascism.
The last Thursday of every November in the United States is a day filled with so much gluttony that even the most unscientific of us know that a substance called tryptophan lurks in our turkey, which makes us comatose after the huge feast. It is Thanksgiving in America and turkey is the king of the table. Most immigrants join this national celebration without really knowing the story behind it. Immigrant parents often learn some rudimentary history from their young elementary school children who bring home coloured images of turkeys, people with feathered headbands called Native Americans, and white people dressed in 17th Century English garbs, known as Pilgrims. These same images are festooned around the classrooms, often with the English people’s images, big and prominent, at the centre of the posters, while Native Americans, also called “Indians”, are small and receding at the margins.
The story our children bring home goes like this: Some English people, called Pilgrims or Puritans, left their country in 1620 and arrived on the shores of the State now called Massachusetts in 1621. The inhabitants of this territory were known as the Mohegan, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Narrangansett, Pequot, Pocumtuck, and Massachusetts for whom the State that came later was named. Our children only knew all these tribes as Native Americans in their history lessons. The English landed in a place called “Plimouth Rock” and began a new life in the new territory. However, the first winter was so harsh and they did not have enough food to survive it. The Native Americans shared their food with the new settlers, and when Spring came taught them how to plan the local crops, which these natives of England were very unfamiliar with. That Kumbaya First Sharing of food with Native Americans, even though not called Thanksgiving then, led to the national holiday we now celebrate every last Thursday in November. The survival of those pilgrims led to the founding of the great country we all live in today, and so we remember this First Thanksgiving and celebrate it every year.
Like all national mythologies, I discovered while learning more about American history, that this story has deep holes in it. Indeed, the Pilgrims or Puritans left England in the 17th century seeking a new land because they wanted a place to practice their religion freely and live according to their own rules. They first went to the Netherlands and settled in the city of Leiden, where they were given maximum liberty to practice their religion, but they left claiming they could not retain their English identity, and they could not make a good living, which means by the time they sailed to the New World, the intention was not only to fulfil a religious dream.
For Native Americans, many of whom today live in dire poverty, Thanksgiving is a Day of Mourning. The expansion of European settlers westwards led to the genocide of their people. Survivors who live in reservations are plagued by alcoholism, depression, and health problems, only seen in the Third World. Suicide rates among their youth are the highest in the country.
What was blatantly omitted in the story told to the children was that as time went on, the English settlers started encroaching on the land of their hosts, becoming more militant and displacing them. The villagers of a Pequot village were massacred and the Native tribes fought back. This violent back-and-forth around the relentless land grab of the English settlers eventually led to a full scale war in 1675. Metacomet, a chief of the Wampanoag tribe, tried to unite the other tribes against what was clearly an aggressive usurpation of their ancestral land and the decimation of their people. Like all colonised people do, some tribes followed him, while others sided with the English. It was a brief one-year war. The Native Americans were defeated by the superior fire power of the English. Metacomet was beheaded in Rhode Island and his head was sent to Massachusetts where it was mounted on a spike and displayed in Plymouth town public square for twenty years. His body was mutilated, and in a gruesome display of conquest, one of his hands was sent to Boston and another to England. The English settlers rejoiced and thanked their God for giving them victory over the “savages”, making the land full of abundance available to them. Metacomet’s wife and son, and many of his followers who couldn’t escape, were sold into slavery to the West Indies by the English conquerors. This history was a real life enactment of the allegory of the camel, who feeling cold outside in the desert begged his owner to allow him to put just his nose inside the warm tent. His master agreed after some consideration, and then the camel begged for his front legs to be admitted into the tent, and the master agreed again out of pity; and then his belly, and his hind legs, until his whole body was in the tent. Soon as that happened, he kicked out his master, the owner of the tent, into the cold. Isale oro l’egbin is a Yoruba proverb. It means the bottom of wealth is filthy.
Many years ago, my family and I visited the town of Plymouth. With our young children in tow, we made a beeline to the famous Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed, hoping to see this important site and experience a part of American history. To our shock, there was no rock. Instead, there was a stone covered with plexiglass with a sign that said that was not the actual rock. My guess is that there was never a rock, but this has become an indelible part of the national imagination. The town of Plymouth makes a lucrative business of tourism, with people from all over the country and around the world flocking there to see the mythical rock. They created a historical Massachusetts 17th-Century English village that replicated what they imagined it looked like back then, with actors and actresses wearing old English garbs of that period, sharing the stories of their lives as new inhabitants of the Plymouth Colony. It is interactive. A tourist could talk to the actor Pilgrims, and they would transport you to the 17th C with their insight, manners, and historical accounts. America has become a much more diverse country since its founding roots. The First Thanksgiving did not have turkey. However, it is the star of the table, roasted whole, accompanied by different side dishes of vegetables, starch and desserts. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Wild turkey was plentiful in the new land, so turkey came to represent the holiday, signifying the wealth and abundance of the colony.
For Native Americans, many of whom today live in dire poverty, Thanksgiving is a Day of Mourning. The expansion of European settlers westwards led to the genocide of their people. Survivors who live in reservations are plagued by alcoholism, depression, and health problems, only seen in the Third World. Suicide rates among their youth are the highest in the country. Many Americans of good conscience, wanting to do the right thing, have called for Thanksgiving to be a Day of Atonement. While history cannot be reversed, more can be done for the Native American communities to allow them gain access to education, good health care, and jobs. Encroachment on their land still continues as they battle against the installation of oil pipe lines on their land which will desecrate their sacred sites and pollute their water ways. We lived in Massachusetts for almost two decades and it was quite clear that they are absent from the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state. I was horrified to see the list of diseases plaguing them when I visited their clinic on Martha’s Vineyard during a professional site visit. As always though, history is complicated. Some Native American tribes like the Cherokees colluded with European settlers to trade in and own enslaved Africans, and others were used as trackers by whites to catch run-away enslaved people. Eventually, whatever access or privileges granted to Native Americans were taken away as treaties were broken by European settlers, and their people suffered the devastation of all conquered people.
It is a metaphor for the country itself, that it is always becoming as each generation adds something to fulfil the dream of the Founding Fathers, with the Constitution as the centerpiece. President Barack Obama regards this national aspiration as creating a more perfect union. Thanksgiving is also a time to remember less privileged Americans.
Thanksgiving is a holiday for families. Millions take to the road and sky to be with their families to celebrate this important holiday. It has become a cliché that this togetherness is not always peaceful, as family members bring their political and personal differences to the dining table. It is often inter-generational and recipes received from grandparents are reproduced and passed along to younger members of the family. For years, my African-American husband cooked our Thanksgiving dinners, which were shared by friends, international visitors, and his graduate students who didn’t have anywhere else to go. His recipes came from his mother. He passed these along to our children who are now the chefs for our Thanksgiving meals, reproducing delicious butter nut squash soup, corn pudding, yams and collard greens. They, too, have added their own millennial touch, spatchcocking the turkey, and creating sumptuous side dishes unfamiliar to me and their father. It is a metaphor for the country itself, that it is always becoming as each generation adds something to fulfil the dream of the Founding Fathers, with the Constitution as the centerpiece. President Barack Obama regards this national aspiration as creating a more perfect union. Thanksgiving is also a time to remember less privileged Americans. For years, my late Washingtonian mother-in-law did a Thanksgiving Hay Ride for the poor in Washington DC, whereby she collected turkeys and other food items from her well-to-do friends weeks ahead of Thanksgiving, and distributed them to needy families so they could enjoy the holiday like everyone.
The diversity of America shows up on Thanksgiving dining tables as new immigrants prepare and share the dishes from their homeland. The turkey itself may not even appear on some immigrants’ tables, or they are prepared as a stew to be eaten with something else, but it probably will be the star of their children’s tables when they become adults, because they have become American. People have something to be thankful for. I am thankful for family and friends, for my American neighbours who are kind and generous, for strangers who offer spontaneous smiles, and for all the voters who in the last midterm election trooped out to vote and moved the country away from a disastrous and distressing path of Fascism.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: email@example.com
Image credits: Top image: LauriPatterson/Getty Images; second image: henrydontbiteher.blogspot.com; third image: AP Photo.