Every November, people across the nation gather together to fill themselves on marshmallow blanketed sweet potatoes, a rainbowed array of pie slices and buttered greens, jellied and canned shaped cranberries, and that patiently basted prized roast Turkey — all in honor of one of the most revered and widely celebrated holidays in the United States of America: Thanksgiving.
And while this Thursday of all Thursdays has been steeped in religious freedom, stewed in interracial equality, and seasoned with the stars and stripes — when we take an honest look at what we are digesting year after year, it’s really all just a bunch of steaming hot bullshit.
Bullshit about good-hearted European Christian “Pilgrims” forced to flee their European homelands to pray to their God freely. Bullshit about their love of indigenous communities and respect for their people and cultures. Bullshit about cornucopias of gratitude, prayers to white Jesus, and browned turkey gravy.
Complete bullshit. All of it.
Take, for example, the notion that Thanksgiving is an important historical moment that grew out of the first interactions between white Europeans and Indigenous people. Bullshit.
Over a century of indigenous genocide and black enslavement scorched and salted the earth of Turtle Island before the Mayflower’s journey was even a thought. Christopher Jones captained the Mayflower across the Atlantic in 1620, a full 128 years after Columbus found himself lost in “Indian” territory in 1492. The Mayflower arrived 118 years after the first slave ship arrived in 1502. It arrived 22 years after the first colony within what is now the boundaries of the United States was founded in New Mexico. And it arrived 12 years after Jamestown, the first settlement within the boundaries of the original colonies, was founded.
The Mayflower was little more than another boatload of white colonizers in an Atlantic full of slave ships, stolen goods, and white invaders. And not one crew member or passenger was referred to as a “Pilgrim.” That part of the story is also total bullshit.
While millions of school children will dawn pilgrim costumes and millions more apply the indigenous equivalent of blackface to their “historical” performances, their heartwarming and bigoted displays are little more revisionist lies draped in construction paper costumery and pranced across stolen land. There were no “Pilgrims” on the Mayflower.
The Mayflower was chartered as an economic and political venture — not a religious exodus.
By the time the Mayflower set sail, competition for land, resources, and superiority in the “New World” had become an incredibly lucrative industry. Amongst the entrepreneurial entities that pirated and profited off of the pillaging of indigenous lands were companies chartered by the royal crowns they served to settle specific lots of territory in the Colonies. The voyage of the Mayflower was chartered for just such a purpose by a profit driven company called the Merchant Adventurers of London.
The majority of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were referred to as the “Strangers.” They were comprised of indentured servants, military personnel, contracted workers, and governing authorities contracted specifically to support the settlement of the Colony of Virginia. Among them was Myles Standish, for example, a military leader that would go on to become a prominent figure in colonial politics.
Also amongst the Strangers was a small group of passengers called the “Separatists.” This group of individuals were voyaging to the New World for religious reasons. That part is true. These Christian passengers, though, only occupied a minority number of spaces on the voyage and not one of them called themselves a “Pilgrim.” That term would not come into common use until two centuries later.
The Strangers and the Separatists on the Mayflower sailed into Cape Cod in November of 1620. That part of the story is also true. They did not, however, come ashore, immediately make friends with the “native inhabitants,” and join them as equals at the party to end all parties. That part of the story is also total bullshit.
The passengers and crew of the Mayflower arrived sick and starving. They were riddled with contagious diseases and were quarantined on their ship until late March. In the meantime, select passengers had taken it upon themselves to forge for food outside of the ship and soon gained a reputation as thieves for stealing corn and grains from local Indigenous stores.
By the time they were able to collectively disembark, half of the men and women on the Mayflower had died and their relationship with the locals was such that they positioned cannons on nearby hilltops in case the “Indians” attacked.
There was no warm welcome. There was no immediate celebration. There was little but death and disease when the colonizers on the Mayflower first arrived in the New World.
There is evidence to suggest, though, that by the first harvest after they anchored off the coast of Massachusetts, there was some sort of meal shared between indigenous leaders and the passengers of the Mayflower. For example, in a booklet entitled Mourt’s Relation, one of the passengers of the Mayflower wrote:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
This event is most frequently cited by historians as the first Thanksgiving dinner. But that is also bullshit.
In fact, Spanish colonizers had been celebrating Thanksgiving in the New World since the 1500s. Like English speaking European colonizers, they had also combined ceremonies of gratitude for safe voyages, encounters with indigenous communities, Christian prayers and fall harvests into this holiday.
Pork, beans, and biscuits were among the dishes prepared for these Thanksgiving celebrations that began over half a century before the “First Thanksgiving” celebrated with turkey and bigotry by Americans today.
So, let’s take a step back and recap for a moment.
There was no Turkey. There were no Pilgrims. There was a Mayflower, but the crew and passengers didn’t make first contact with the indigenous peoples of the New World. They didn’t celebrate the first “Thanksgiving” held in America. They didn’t even celebrate THEIR first Thanksgiving in the colonies. And they probably didn’t even eat turkey.
Waterfowl was the most commonly prepared and served poultry harvested at the time. It is more likely that they ate goose or duck instead of turkey, if in fact they ate together at all.
So, what are we really celebrating here?
Why are we replaying a complete falsehood about the relationship between white invaders and the indigenous peoples they would conquer and kill? Why are we replaying a false narrative about religious freedom when financial and political gain drove the voyage of the Mayflower? Why are we pretending English speaking Christians invented a holiday created by Spaniards and why are we lying about every last detail down to the names of the voyagers and the birds that were eaten?
The real reason is rooted in the nation’s desire to re-write its own history in such a way that replaces a military and economic invasion with a search for God and religious freedom, the genocide of the indigenous peoples of with a dinner party, and the skin-hating greed engorged motives of white settlers with a love of turkey and potatoes and a few games of tossed pig skin. The real reason lies in the nation’s collective white need to believe that this nation was built upon merit and morality rather than genocide, slavery, exploitation, and white supremacy.
We see it happening today before our very eyes.
The Confederacy is now described as honorable by federal authorities. Nazis are being historically re-written as fine people worthy of positions in the White House. Immigrants are terrorists. Black people are criminals. Brown people are raping our women. Indigenous people are stealing our land. Queer people are destroying straight marriage. God doesn’t want transgendered men and women to use the bathroom. Guns don’t kill people, gun control does. People of color are taking advantage of white people. Poor folks are responsible for their own low wages. Puerto Rico can fuck itself. Russia is the best. The new Capitol is Mar-a-Lago and the National Bird is KFC.
Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. And America needs it now more than ever.
It needs to believe in the lie that the foundations of this nation aren’t solidly rooted in white supremacy and murder. It needs to believe that the children can learn about love and gratitude without respect for truth or privilege. It needs to believe that everything will be fine if the turkey defrosts in time. And it needs to believe that if they don’t say anything to Uncle Bigot across the table, then we can all just go on with our lives full and in peace.
America needs to believe in its lies. Otherwise, what else does it have? What else does it have besides centuries of white supremacy, injustice, and inequality? What else does it have besides its hands down its pants, a game on the tv and a turkey sandwich in the morning? What else does it have besides white nationalists in the White House, white supremacists in the streets and white power deciding who gets a seat at the table?
American needs it’s lies now more than ever.
Without them, the moral pillar of white authority would crack at its base. Without them, people of color would write the narratives of our celebrations. Without them, our celebrations would honor the true journeys from oppression to freedom in the United States.
Without the regular regurgitation of political and social deceit at the tables we sit at on Thanksgiving and every day we occupy these stolen lands, we might not be feeding the lies of those that seek to Make America Great Again.
Without all this bullshit in our mouths, we might be able to speak the truth.
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