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The Truth Behind Thanksgiving: Contesting History and & Politics

As Thanksgiving is around the corner (not to mention the holiday season), I began to ponder the dark history of our country, and the subsequent spawning of contentious politics. Do you remember your U.S. history class when your teacher began the first class with Christopher Colombus “discovering America”? Or when they later talked about how the Americans gained independence from the British in 1776? As a child, I didn’t completely realize how absurdly whitewashed American history lessons in the education system are, until my dad sat down with my sister and I to talk about the full extent of the horrors of the Native American genocide and the slavery of Africans. My childhood was marked by reading books such as A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and watching movies like Roots (1997). 

Even then, my exposure to a convoluted version of American history involved dressing up as “Indians” in elementary school for a school play that all the parents attended. And here’s a confession: I dressed up as Pocahontas one Halloween when I was 11, sans face paint and a headdress. Now that I look back on these memories, I obviously realize the error of my ways in participating in a play and dressing up as a figure which serve to glamorize the role of European colonialists and white Americans in history. In an era where most people are aware of Eurocentrism and cultural appropriation, for peoples who have been oppressed and marginalized by white people to witness them taking on roles or dressing up as them is a slap in the face. 

Thanksgiving, whether we like it or not, epitomizes the glorification of European colonialism and exploitation without acknowledging the pain and trauma Native Americans and African-Americans have had to endure in this country for hundreds of years. Even the holiday’s historical origins have been convoluted so that the arrival of Europeans and their relationship to Native Americans in the New World was a matter of holding hands and singing kumbaya. As the tale commonly goes, after the Puritans first landed on the shores of what would presently be known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, they were facing difficulties gathering food for the winter. During the spring, after scores of men died that first winter, Squanto, an Abenaki who was formerly a slave, visited the Puritans and taught them various survival tactics such as how to grow certain crops and extract sap from maple trees. Additionally, he aided the Europeans with forming an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe lasting 50 years, which culminated with a festive banquet hosted  in 1621 after the first successful harvest by Governor William Bradford for their Native American allies. Americans often used this story as proof that Europeans and Native Americans did get along, and often attribute the historically dwindling population of Native Americans to diseases unintentionally brought by Europeans.

In these kinds of stories, fact and fiction blur to the point where it is difficult for the regular American to distinguish between the two. The dominant narratives about American history that have been fed down our throats don’t account for the systematic exploitation and violence that has been inflicted on Native Americans, African-Americans, and other minority groups. According to one article, “To celebrate the current Thanksgiving mythology is to celebrate the act of land expansion through ethnic cleansing and slavery — most of which happened at the point of a gun.” Celebrating the holiday without at the very least acknowledging the brutality reality of our history is to be complicit in the actions of European colonizers that have led to the decimation of Native Americans and the erasure of African cultures from the enslaved. What has been ignored in the process are a series of events including the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, and the internment of Japanese-Americans; instances representing the ideologies and notions prevalent in the U.S. America’s obsession with race beget racism that is so deeply entrenched in our country’s legacy that it is the elephant in the room no one wants to face. And mentioning America’s foray into imperialism and capitalism would be a whole other ballgame. 

Today, Thanksgiving is a holiday both beloved and dreaded by many Americans. Beloved because it has become a time when families can come together around the dinner table over a sumptuous meal. Dreaded because of the conversations it can provoke — where different family members and relatives unabashedly fight over clashing political views. Where that old uncle you didn’t want to see begins asking you incessant questions about your life, while complaining that millennials are jobless, self-entitled vagrants who need to pull themselves by the bootstraps and find a job. Or that nosy aunt who begins giving you a talk about how you should find yourself a husband and have children as soon as you graduate from university, while bemoaning Planned Parenthood as baby-killers. OK boomer. 

In the era of Trump, which has brought about a resurgence in nationalism and populism, politics have only become increasingly intensified and polarized. We see videos of African-Americans being viciously tackled by the police, and white folks telling Latinx people speaking Spanish to “go back to their country.” We hear the terms “identity politics” and “social justice warriors” being thrown around with vitriol like these are concepts to be repulsed by. The amount of indifference that particularly white Americans show towards the oppression and marginalization of racial and ethnic minority groups speaks to the level of privilege they have continued to retain due to the numerous benefits they have received from the system that is simply not serving others.

So when Trump or some other politicians talk about putting up a wall at the Mexican border or about refusing Middle Eastern refugees, consider the histories that have given rise to holidays like Thanksgiving, which appears to be a secular holiday distanced from any subjective beliefs or notions. But Thanksgiving as we know it would have never been a thing if it hadn’t been for the arrival of Europeans and subsequent colonization of North America. A more apt name for the holiday, one which gives people the chance to uncover and educate themselves about American history, would be Truthsgiving.

Sidra Imam

Columbia Barnard '21

Sidra is a junior at Barnard College studying Sociology and Human Rights who is proud to call herself an intersectional feminist. On a free day, you'll see her talk about social justice, pop culture and existential crises. Also, her taste in books, art, and food is most definitely highbrow.
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