Thanksgiving Is Complicated
Black people have long embraced the tradition of Thanksgiving. Even during slavery, they took time to be thankful for what they had, although it wasn’t much at all. So, what did the enslaved eat on Thanksgiving Day? The enslaved who worked in the fields would go out and catch wild game for their families. The women would prepare cornmeal cakes to go along with the game. The house slaves “had it better” by feasting on the leftovers from the main house after the slave-owners finished their meals.
Thanksgiving actually started off as a church-oriented celebration for the Black community. Black pastors gave sermons about struggles, hopes, fears, and triumphs. Sound familiar? These sermons usually rebuked the institution of slavery; the suffering of the Black people; and often pleaded that a slave-free America would someday come.
Some enslaved people saw the holidays as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. Because many enslaved people had spouses, children, and family who were owned by different masters, and who lived on other properties, they often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time. Some used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape, though their masters’ expectation was they would return from their “family visit.”
Today, many of us spend time traveling and visiting family and friends during the holiday. Thanksgiving today is not recognized for the same reasons as it was years ago. Today, it’s a day that is spent with family and friends being thankful. Growing up, Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays, simply because my whole family was together. The turkey, dressing, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and Nana’s cherry cobbler were what we all looked forward to.
But let’s be clear: The images of Pilgrims eating peacefully with American Indians at a shared feast presents a faulty view of the founding of this country - one that is framed as though there was a willing handoff between the Native people and white people. This hides the history of violence and oppression, and it manages to both legitimize and whitewash our country’s terrible actions toward indigenous people.
Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday to process. The love that Black people have for the holiday would seem to fly in the face our shared history with American Indians which is defined by oppression. The special place that Thanksgiving holds with Black people and religious tradition, however, is full of the same contradictions of pain and joy. For Black people, celebrating Thanksgiving appears to be no less problematic than celebrating other holidays; Independence Day celebrates white men establishing their independence from oppression. Even religious holidays at the center of Black culture carry the complex past of both salvation and enslavement.
The fact that we celebrate and participate in so many traditions that are so burdened with contradictions is a central part of our complicated story. We have always found ways to disrupt supremacy and infuse it with our spirit but also being forced participants in it.
Slave food became soul food; spirituals born of pain and struggle became jazz, gospel and blues. Religious holidays became reasons to escape from the hardships of slavery, then from Jim Crow. They were opportunities to fill up on those soul foods, to revive the spirit in gospel and blues, to reunite families separated by slave trades and again by the Great Migration, to rebel with joy.
Perhaps, one day we’ll realize that there is a shared history of holiday contradiction and complicated feelings about many of the rituals that we know as “American.” But until then, the secret ingredient in Nana’s greens? That’s rebellion. We always go back for more.