On Thanksgiving

Let me tell you a story.

It’s a very Bahamian thing to do, you know, tell people stories. I could start mine in a number of ways. I could, for instance, start like this:

I’ll tell you a story bout Jackinanory …

or I could start like this:

It once was a time a very fine time
the monkey chew tobacco and he spit white lime…

The point is, it’s a Bahamian thing to do, to tell people stories. Remember that for later.

Anyway, here’s mine. A couple of years ago, I was teaching a class — a very large class of sophisticated, well-employed people. It so happened that I was giving a test on a Thursday evening near the end of November. I announced my intention a week or so in advance. In the class before the night of the test, a stream of people, one after another, came up to me. Every single one of them had the same request: could we postpone the test? The reason being given was simple. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and they were going to be on holiday, eating their Thanksgiving turkeys somewhere that was not the class.

Now, being a good Bahamian — I watched our flag going up that flagpole at midnight on July 10, 1973, and I saw the blessing the Good Lord sent down upon it, stirring the air around it so that it opened out in a soft breeze that had not touched the Union Jack until that point — I flatly refused. My students were horrified.

“Are you American?” I asked them. “Do you have dual citizenship?”

I was truly interested; I don’t like people who make assumptions, and I didn’t want to be guilt of one myself.

As I remember it, not one of them was.

“I went to school in the US,” said one brave soul.

“Well, I went to school in Canada,” said I, “but you don’t see me celebrating their Thanksgiving on Columbus Day.” (I do not think I said Discovery Day; I don’t think I can fix my mouth to say that.)

I then took the stand that if they wanted to pass the class, they had to take the test. The worst thing they could’ve done was tell me they wanted to go home and celebrate a foreign holiday; it straightened up every patriotic bone in my body. There was a great outcry, but I stuck to my guns.

“If there’s one thing I hate,” I told them, “it’s a group of independent Black people taking over an American holiday.”

And it’s not as though it’s anything to be proud of. Even Americans are learning to be critical of their Thanksgivings. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving God thanks; that’s what Harvest is for, as my good colleague Sebastian Campbell has already eloquently pointed out. But the implications of Thanksgiving, even for Americans, are pretty iffy, to say the least. They become even more iffy when people whose history is a whole long story of oppression insist on adopting the holiday.

You see, American Thanksgiving is a celebration that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers. Now who were these people? They were a group of white settlers who, fleeing religious persecution in Great Britain, set up camp on a land that was already inhabited. As the story goes, each Thanksgiving was another chance for them to thank the Good Lord for keeping them alive for another year.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that terrible. But look at it this way.

The Pilgrim Fathers did for the mainland of the USA what Columbus did for our islands. Their settlement, like his landfall, ultimately resulted in the devastation of the populations of native people who occupied, farmed and ruled the land that was North America. Each Thanksgiving, therefore, implies that the Pilgrim Fathers were giving thanks to God for helping them kill off a few more Indians, for helping them take over a little more of the land that belonged to the Six Nations (whose descendants tell us that they celebrate the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth). The states in which the Pilgrim Fathers landed have very few reservations at all; almost all their native people have been assimilated into the dominant, invasive population.

It is for this that we give thanks.

I don’t accept it. I was born and grew up among a people for whom oppression is a daily part of life. I don’t merely refer to people of African descent; all of us have experienced oppression in one form or another. As inhabitants of a tiny country on the edge of the greatest nation in the world, we are more than familiar with oppression. We should identify with the oppressed everywhere — not with the oppressors.

I believe that those of us who do not carry an American passport but celebrate Thanksgiving like the Americans choose to identify with oppressors. To do so denies our very essence, erases our history a little more. To buy into this holiday, which commemorates people whose settlement of New England began the massacre of the Native peoples of the USA, tells me that we have very little solid sense of self. We ignore the fact that among us still walk Bahamians in whose veins run Native American blood. Some of us — Bowlegs and Wildgooses, among others — still carry Native American names. And for any one of us to celebrate American Thanksgiving on our soil obliterates who we are.

E bo ben, my story done en.
If you ax me for another, I’ll tell it again.

One thought on “On Thanksgiving”

  1. This is sooo true .. for years now this has irked me and earned me the title of “radical” (or things more negative) among my colleagues at the office. Every 3rd Thursday of November you see them ordering turkey dinners with side-orders that mimic americans to boot .. I don’t recall pumpkin pie and collard greens being regularly eaten by Bahamians. In Kingsway Academy as a child, kids were even dressed up as pilgrims and indians!!

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