It’s amazing what we didn’t learn in school, how history can be revised, and how omissions can change the way we remember a story. I recall looking forward to Thanksgiving for all the obvious reasons, when I was in grade school. I was always amazed at the cool way you could draw a turkey simply by tracing your hand. When I got older, I looked forward to the mini break from school. Most importantly, I am reminded of the opportunity for our family to come together around some of the best food known to man. This simplistic way of looking at the Thanksgiving holiday prompted me to think about a bible verse from Corinthians 13:11; When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
As an adult, I understand that this annual holiday of gratitude is multifaceted. On one hand, the day is intended to celebrate a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 between colonists and Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth, Massachutes. It took over 200 years for President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, during the Civil War, in 1863. It would take another 107 years for another perspective of the holiday to gain formal recognition.
After a member of the Wampanoag tribe, Wamsutta Frank James’ request to give a speech at a commemorative Plymouth Thanksgiving event was denied, a separate observation emerged. James thought it was important to share his true feelings about anniversary of that first Thanksgiving period. A segment of his remarks read: “This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America…A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.”
Organizers of the 1970 commemorative event felt that the speech was divisive and requested that James rewrite his remarks. He refused and instead gathered with other participants on Cole’s Hill, a mound overlooking Plymouth Rock. This meeting began the first National Day of Mourning and the movement to remind Americans that Thanksgiving is not a day of celebration for everyone. This year marks the 50th year of the opposing observation and it has gained multi-racial and multi-ethnic supporters, from around the world. With this increased backing has come the question: Which observance should we acknowledge, Thanksgiving Day or The National Day of Mourning? This is the mixed bag that is America’s history. There is room for both observances to exist, as long as we are able to be honest about the nation’s beginnings. We must mourn our mistakes and be thankful for the opportunity to correct them. The truth can be painful, but it can also be liberating.