Re-thinking Thanksgiving in a Time of Racial Reconciliation

Re-thinking Thanksgiving in a Time of Racial Reconciliation

“I am glad you don’t think I am heartless. I am nothing of the kind. I know I am not. And yet I must admit that this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should….It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took part, but by which I have not been wounded . . . .

Don’t talk about horrid subjects. If one doesn’t talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things.” ~ Oscar Wilde Re-thinking Thanksgiving in a Time of Racial Reconciliation

Many of us learned about Thanksgiving in school—Pilgrims and Indians happily feasting together, right? I’ll bet that most of us have either starred in or watched a Thanksgiving program that featured small befeathered and Pilgrim-hatted children sharing maize and smiles. So cute.

But that’s not how it really was. As adults, we know that, don’t we? We know that the tradition of Thanksgiving also represents theft from indigenous peoples, that our country was built upon the grievous wounds inflicted upon those peoples—loss of land, loss of life, loss of culture, loss of identity.

Many of us do have much for which to be thankful: family, friends, enough to eat, and enough to share. Thanksgiving is usually a time that we set aside for gathering with those we love to offer thanks for all that we have.

Perhaps it’s time, though, to rethink and revise our Thanksgiving traditions to incorporate a recognition of the fearful price that others paid, to acknowledge that the history we learned in school paints a deeply flawed portrait.

I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of an aging and ever more hideous portrait hidden away in an attic where no one could see, while its subject, the beautiful and eternally youthful Dorian Gray, leads a life of guilty pleasures. The portrait and the living man—wildly contradictory facets of truth and conscience.

That picture in the attic—ghastly and never openly acknowledged by its owner—is oddly reminiscent of how we turn away from the reality of our own history. Like the unhappy Mr. Gray, we know it’s there, and sometimes we privately look at it. Sometimes, as he did, we may even privately despair. But the longer we turn away, the uglier that history becomes—because wittingly or not, it is part of our daily lives.

But now, we know better. And to paraphrase America’s revered poet and author Maya Angelou, when we know better, then we must do better.

So this year, let’s find a way to be grateful for what we have and face up to why we have it. Let’s express gratitude in ways that acknowledge the past. Let’s see our blessings for what they are: gifts that stem from that which was taken from others.

Let’s start with that, and make our way out of the attic and into the light of new and more authentic holiday traditions.

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