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On Thanksgiving, celebration, and history

This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman tells the story of what happened at Plymouth and to the Wampanoag people. 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, and alongside his harrowing story of enslavement and freedom, contains philosophical truths and observations about the United States that only he could elucidate.

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. Written in the last months of his life, this collection of essays reflects on all it means to be human.

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Giving Thanks, Despite Everything

Why gratitude and gratefulness — beyond the “hegemonic holiday colonialism” — matters more than ever

Giving Thanks, Despite Everything

Why gratitude and gratefulness — beyond the “hegemonic holiday colonialism” — matters more than ever

Being thankful in a world where the political landscape proffers war, terror, genocide, and fascism feels almost impossible in this moment. Yet, here we are. And we can still be thankful.

We give thanks for family, life, health, God, and friends, not necessarily in that order and not always inclusive of these grateful staples. Give thanks for the energetic spirit of resistance — the collective forces of our humanity that fight the powerful specter of mortal domination and dehumanization. Giving thanks on Thanksgiving has to be more than the celebration of colonial hegemony.

This moment, this timeline, requires an ongoing transformative effort to wrestle a modicum of liberation from the clutches of our colonial history.

I grew up in a community that half-jokingly referred to Thanksgiving as Thanks-killing. And I suspect the half-joke referred to the “thanks” part. The killing is a fundamental feature of the colonial milieu out of which holidays like Thanksgiving were born and raised.

Frederick Douglass captured this hegemonic holiday colonialism masterfully in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. “I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave,” writes Douglass. “I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.” Ultimately for Douglass, “Holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

Give thanks for the lifeline of hope, even when hope feels naïve or out of touch with our current reality.

Douglass’ insights animate/inform the longstanding impulse to revise the meaning and purpose of Thanksgiving to meet the cultural requirements to eradicate colonialism and systematically remove its residue from our contemporary existence. In this sense, giving thanks on Thanksgiving can be a liberating act, one that finds gratitude and gratefulness even in a sea of sadness that threatens to drown us. Give thanks for the lifeline of hope, even when hope feels naïve or out of touch with our current reality.

Gratitude is different from gratefulness

In an absolute sense, gratitude is good. Michael McCullough, who conducts research on gratitude, claims that “the positive feeling of gratitude can alert us to the benefits we’ve received from others and inspire us to show appreciation, which will in turn make others more likely to help us again in the future.” According to McCullough, “Gratitude helps build social bonds and friendships between individuals.”

This world needs tools to build social bonds, not just between individuals, but between communities, between regions, between nations, and if at all possible, between religions. An interrelated global movement based in authentic gratitude might help to drain some of the toxic energy in our political discourse; it might provide a social backdrop for humanity to overcome some of the forces of hegemony, even when those forces hide out in our holidays.

Lots of famous (rich) people have great quotable platitudes about gratitude. Oprah tells us to “be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Ok. But these words don’t feel so grateful from the perspective of a billionaire speaking to the masses — many of whom cannot save enough to manage an unexpected financial crisis in their lives.

Deepak Chopra claims that “gratitude opens the door to . . . the power, the wisdom, the creativity of the universe. You open the door through gratitude.” Fine, but gratitude alone does not open doors of opportunity for the people who need it most.

Giving thanks in this moment has to be about building these social bonds — the ties that bind us and connect us as human beings across a complex range of identity categories and socio-political arrangements.

This world — this timeline — does not work like that. This world often asks the oppressed to be grateful for their oppression. Sometimes this messaging is contorted to suggest that surviving an oppressive history should generate gratefulness in those who have survived.

Here is where the distinction between gratitude and gratefulness is an important tool in securing our holidays from hegemony. Gratitude generally operates on an interpersonal level, where people express some level of gratitude to someone else for some specific reason. It can feel transactional at times, but authentic gratitude isn’t transactional at all. It’s about giving thanks as a way of acknowledging and strengthening bonds between people.

What is gratefulness, then?

Gratefulness is different. Gratefulness can operate on levels beyond the interpersonal meanings often associated with gratitude. We can be grateful for our existence on this earth. We can be grateful that this earth still exists given how we have treated it up to this point. We can be grateful for the resistance to oppression. We can be grateful for those who stand willing to fight for our humanity, even for those people who don’t always recognize that humanity in others. Gratefulness is bigger than gratitude. It is so often associated with God and faith because being grateful on a grand scale usually requires both of these.

In many ways, people who have overcome oppressive histories grapple with gratefulness in distinctly political ways. Black folks are fully aware of the hegemony built into the Thanksgiving holiday. But a whole lot of Black folks celebrate Thanksgiving every year. As a community we have made it our own. Thinking of it as Thanks-killing is just a vernacular reminder of Douglass’ insights about all American holidays. Never forget what he thought about Independence Day. On Thanksgiving, we give thanks for family and continue to build the familial bonds that were systemically denied us throughout the history of American slavery.

Giving thanks in this moment has to be about building these social bonds — the ties that bind us and connect us as human beings across a complex range of identity categories and socio-political arrangements. To the extent that we can continue to do this good work through the hegemony of our holidays, we might one day be truly grateful for how those results are realized in the world.


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