Before this year’s national celebration of Thanksgiving, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, just 43 miles southwest from Cambridge, where I reside, celebrated its own 400th anniversary. The nationally televised extravaganza venerated the arrival of European Pilgrims to America in 1620.
Packaged in the promotion was the story of these early Pilgrims’ heroic voyage on the Mayflower, and the beginning of American democracy that President John Quincy Adams depicted as “the earliest example of civil government established by the act of the people to be governed.” Also, the event promoted the celebration by depicting a cooperative and cordial relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.
This Thanksgiving’s 400th anniversary arrives amid a continued COVID pandemic that has ravaged marginalized communities of color as the country reckons with its past by re-examining its roots of persistent inequities. For example, this year, Massachusetts celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day.
In 2020, the NFL team formerly called the “Washington Redskins” changed its name to, for now, the Washington Football Team. And in this supposedly more “woke” moment, television images of white people doing “war whoops” and “tomahawk chops” coming across our screen are now frowned upon.
That said, would celebrating Thanksgiving’s 400th anniversary with the town of Plymouth be a reckoning? Historically, for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a cause of celebration but rather a day of mourning. Why would Indigenous people celebrate the colonizers who tried to destroy them?”
Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning, a reminder that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the early beginnings of the persecution of Native Americans and their long history of bloodshed with European settlers.
The first group of Pilgrims was refugees, a group America closes her doors to now. In their dogged pursuit of religious liberty, their actions brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual national celebration of Thanksgiving of their arrival.
However, in this nation’s reckoning moment, celebrating the arrival of the Pilgrims hints at its continued revisionist history. As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the whole story of the arrival of the Pilgrims.
“Most pilgrims would have died during the harsh winter had it not been for the open arms of the Native Americans,” Taylor Bell wrote in The Hypocrisy Of Refusing Refugees at Thanksgiving.
The misrepresentations about what was served at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621 needs to be corrected, too. For example, there is no evidence that turkey was offered, and pie could not have been served because there was no flour or butter available for the crust in those days. Also, the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, after first stopping in Provincetown, now known as an LGBTQ vacation hot spot.
When Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us,” in a March 1964 speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, he didn’t identify Plymouth Rock as the stepping stone of America’s preordained manifest destiny. Instead, let’s remember the rock is a direct consequence of the continued struggle Native Americans confront today, as well as black, brown, and other oppressed people in this country.
Memory is a form of resistance. It’s transgressive against glorified lies. For example, the prevailing narrative of the Lost Clause Myth, revering Confederate soldiers as America’s true patriots in the Civil War.
Also, memory is subversive in its enduring power to disrupt historical amnesia and a canonical past unwillingness to confront itself. For example, January 6th is depicted, by some, as American patriots defending freedom instead of an insurrection.
On a trip home to New York City in May 2004, I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to view the UNESCO Slave Route Project, “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery.” The exhibit marked the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution proclaiming 2004 “The International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition.”
In highlighting that African Americans should not be shamed by slavery, the exhibit placard stated the following:
“By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of the tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized, and by assigning it its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.”
We should not solely focus on the story of Plymouth Rock. Instead, as Americans, we should focus on creating this nation as a solid rock that rests on a multicultural and democratic foundation. This way, we’d recognize marginalized groups, especially our Native American brothers’ and sisters’ ongoing struggle every day, particularly on Thanksgiving Day.