I want to be thankful and I should be. I have plenty to be thankful for. But, if I were Native-American, or African-American, or Latino-American, or Asian-American, or anything but “White”-American, I might be scratching my head, wondering what to put on my list. There but for the grace of God go I!
On Nov. 25 and every day before and after, I will thank God, Destiny, Fate, Chance, and the prejudice of white descendants of European immigrants for my good fortune. But is that something I should celebrate?
One day recently, I heard on NPR a discussion about the 140,000 children orphaned by Covid, about the shortcomings of the foster care system and the insufficiency of homes for these bereaved children. I asked myself why the United States — its governments, its citizens — is so bad at addressing real social ills.
If, as some conservatives claim, this is a nation founded on Christian values, where has Christian charity gone? Replaced by the cult of self-reliance? Does God help only those who help themselves? To this I also heard a response on the radio: Somebody quipped metaphorically that you can’t expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have boots.
We congratulate ourselves every fourth Thursday in November for having built a City on the Hill for all the world to look up to, long for, and emulate. We base this conceit on a collection of myths we feed our children with their mothers’ milk, such as “the first Thanksgiving” at Plymouth.
But, in fact, the Pilgrims didn’t invent Thanksgiving, they brought it with them from the official English tradition, begun during the reign of Henry VIII, although harvest festivals go back goodness knows how far, all over the world, for obvious reasons: good growing season, good harvest; bad weather, bad season, poor harvest. All in the hands of God, Destiny, Fate, Chance, and Mother Nature.
Moreover, as James W. Loewen points out in “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” “The civil ritual we practice marginalizes Native Americans. Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best next to their almost naked Indian guests. . . . The silliness of all this reaches its zenith [in the suggestion that] ‘the Indians had never seen such a feast!’ . . . This notion that ‘we’ advanced peoples provided for the Natives, exactly the converse of the truth, is not benign.”
Loewen continues: “During the Civil War, when the Union needed all the patriotism that such an observance might muster, Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving a national holiday” in 1863. “The Pilgrims had nothing to do with it; not until the 1890s did they even get included in the tradition.”
Generically speaking, Americans have been blessed by the bountiful continent they conquered, by the (now proving fallible) wisdom of the constitutionalists of 1789 and the heritage of Anglo-Saxon common law. But today, these blessings are very unevenly — even unfairly — distributed.
Since the start of the current administration in Washington, our deeply divided Congress has been wrangling over bills that could improve the lot of many Americans regardless of the hyphenated adjective qualifying their Americanness: Should the wealthy pay more to help those who need help? That is the moral question before us as we celebrate our collective good fortune.
So as we say grace over this year’s turkey, let us pray that we may start the new season with open hands and care for all who reside in this blessed land.
Ana Daniel, who has a Ph.D. in modern European history, is retired from business and teaching. She lives in Bridgehampton.