Thursday, November 24, 2022

As Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving, Obligation to Remember Our Real History

Mural replica in Silverton, Oregon, of one of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings,  at Wikimedia Commons

It's not Thanksgiving the world over, of course. But for us Americans, who tend to be self-focused, in any case, this is a day on which I suspect many of us think the whole world stops along with us to revel in "memories" of an iconized, mythologized American past that never really existed — at least not in the way we want to recall it. And to the extent to which it did exist, it meant a heap of misery for a lot of people who were mere adjuncts to the main narrative celebrated in our national icons, a narrative of happy native Americans sitting peaceably with grateful colonists, genocide and plunder of land nowhere in the mythological picture. Our iconic picture of American Thanksgiving is an equally fabulous (emphasis on root word "fable") picture of happy (always white, white, white) families, grandparents, parents, children, sitting thankfully and amicably at a long table eating bland foods devoid of herbs, spice, garlic, chili, nary a quarrel or disagreement (or thought?) in sight.

Because nostalgia for an imaginary past (white, white, white, and Christian, Christian, Christian) that never really existed in the way it's being imagined and which involved oppression of all sorts of other people when it did exist is now a driving force in American politics and religion, I welcome reminders of our real past as we celebrate Thanksgiving.

As Jonathan Weiler reminds us, that real past is for all of us who do not have native American roots an immigrant past, and, ironically, a large percentage of us today celebrating the American past and our idealized notion of what our own ancestors' immigrant experiences were like want to vent hostility against current immigrants — as though we ourselves are not sons and daughters of immigrants. He writes,

My Jewish ancestors were deemed congenitally criminal and degenerate by earlier generations of anti-immigrant agitators. The same has been true for essentially every wave of voluntary immigrants to the United States in its history. That idealized past certain people want us to return to was, in reality, itself shaped in profound ways by the arrivals, voluntary or otherwise, that the forebears of today’s nativists heaped scorn on, mistreated and repressed. It was ever thus.

And Charles Pierce, whose family immigrated to America from impoverished western Ireland in the early 1900s, notes that all our sentimental, iconic celebrations of Thanksgiving ignore the genocide and theft of land that were the very basis of European settlers' taking root in America — with religion commonly justifying and driving the genocide and land-theft:

And the one thing they all agreed on was that it was necessary to kill all the Native people who'd been here in the first place. The genocide of the Native people in New England doesn't get the run in popular culture that the genocide on the Great Plains does, but it was brutal nonetheless, and it was particularly god-maddened besides.

Then he says that in his relationships with native Americans over the years, he has "learned more about being an American, for good and ill, than I have from practically any other source or any other people." He remembers his grandmother, who had somehow heard this story in far-off County Kerry, Ireland, telling him how the Choctaws, who had just been dispossessed of their land and marched to Indian Territory, who had nothing, sent some of the little money they had to feed the starving Irish in the Great Famine of the 1840s:

My grandmother used to tell me the story of how 'the Indians' (actually, the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma) came to the rescue of the starving victims of an gorta mor, The Great Famine. She had heard tell of it while living on the family sheep farm in north Kerry, from her old ones, I suppose. Dispossessed people, their native culture and language brutally beaten out of them, the Choctaw reaching the end of the Trail of Tears just as the Famine was beginning across the sea.

"Mother of God," my grandmother used to say, "wasn't that an act of Heaven?"

These are significant details of our history we have an obligation to remember as we celebrate the mythic America of yore on Thanksgiving day. But I fear that forgettinbg may be more the classic American mode than remembering, and, today, that forgetting and scrubbing of our real past in favor of the iconic one has powerful political and religious forces egging it on.

No comments: