Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday. Established by a war-time president, then propped up with historically inaccurate legends, and now largely overlooked by retailers, how should we view Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving can be especially problematic for folks who are not part of the privileged Anglo heritage. Not only is turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce very foreign, but the legends of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting together seem to mock their day-to-day experience. Their schools and neighborhoods get routinely and often systematically neglected. Their employers keep them guessing if they will have a job tomorrow. Many live in fear that they or their loved ones will be captured by police and deported.
And even giving thanks can seem more like a distraction than a joyful holiday practice. I recall a quote from Eugen V. Debs, the great labor organizer of the late 19th century, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.” After all, in using the language of the Occupy movement, the 1% wants the 99% to thank them for their jobs and the way that they keep money flowing in our economy, and thus it is a regressive ploy to blind the suffering masses of their plight.
Yeah, so happy freakin’ Thanksgiving. Now let’s get out the Festivus stick and get to the feats of strength.
That kind of attitude just doesn’t sit well with me. Of course, coming from an Anglo-American background, I can identify with the happy-go-lucky sentiment of the Thanksgiving legend, however blatantly false and pernicious it may be. But the point is that we move beyond the bitterness of oppression. Paolo Freire pointed out that we cannot allow oppression to continue its cycle; we must break free from it.
I believe that giving thanks can help us break free from oppression.
Really, thankfulness can be liberatory. I think back to the things that I was thankful for in my elementary school classes where we acted out the Thanksgiving legend. My classmates and I rarely said material things. We talked about family, friends, and security—maybe not in those terms, but it was what we meant.
I recall my favorite Thanksgiving tradition. My grandmother always brings mincemeat pie to remind her and the entire family about how people provide for each other in times of need. It’s about what we could call agape, or unconditional love. It’s about grace.
In recognizing grace in our lives, we break free from the material hells that so many people inhabit. We are no longer cogs in a machine that simply increases the bottom line of a corporation, but we are also agents overflowing with the energy that comes from grace. That energy flows into all sorts of things that affirm our vitality—art, music, athletics, academics, family—and these things are naturally liberatory.
So whether you carve the Tom turkey on Thursday or protest its imperialist implications, remember to give thanks.
The gates of liberation are opened by the keys of thanksgiving.