Give thanks no more; it’s time for a National Day of Atonement
by Robert Jensen
One indication of moral progress in the
In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.
Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.
That the world’s great powers achieved “greatness” through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.
But in the
One vehicle for taming history is various
with Thanksgiving at the heart of
Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.
The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians’ land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving “wild beasts” from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the “merciless Indian Savages” -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn’t stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, “[W]e shall destroy all of them.”
As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th
Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the
as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty
which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion
gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian
peoples of the
world hold sway.”
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here’s how “respectable” politicians, pundits, and professors play the game:
When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our
history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to
history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations’
knowledge about, and respect for, that history. In the
But when one brings into historical discussions
any facts and
interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people
uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the
act in the creation of the
This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about history.
This off-and-on engagement with history isn’t of
interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment,
Any attempt to
this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising
Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.
History does matter, which is why people in power
much energy into controlling it. The
History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.
As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge
on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of
overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the
constricting effects on the day’s mythology on our minds.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the
University of Texas at Austin, board member of the Third Coast Activist
Resource Center (http://thirdcoastactivist.org),
and the author of The Heart of
Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege
and Citizens of the Empire: The
Struggle to Claim Our
Humanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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