When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant tracing your spread-out fingers on construction paper to make a colorful turkey cut-out, and listening to prepackaged accounts of harmony among the early European settlers and the Native Americans who took pity on them, teaching them to grow corn, hunt deer and catch fish. At home, we cooked a turkey to cottony dryness, moistening the meat with slices from a thick red worm of cranberry sauce eased directly from the can onto a plate.
Thanksgiving has deep roots in Christian religious observance, but the current secular holiday was not officially proclaimed until 1941. After some negotiation, Congress set the date as the fourth Thursday of November (rather than the last), compromising with President Roosevelt’s desire to ensure that Thanksgiving’s by-then traditional role as the kick-off day for holiday shopping left plenty of time to spend money before Christmas.
The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth is generally acknowledged as the seed-stock for our national holiday, when Squanto (a Patuxet whose full name was Tisquantum), who had at one time been enslaved by English-speakers, gave lessons in survival to the kin of his oppressors. Plymouth, the subsequent celebrations of the colonists, the Thanksgiving proclamation by the Continental Congress in 1777, and the proclamations that followed by George Washington, John Adams, James Madison and others were directly addressed to God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Ruler of Nations, offering supplication for the nation’s collective transgressions and gratitude for the nation’s military victories and prosperity.
At my childhood home, the holiday was devoted to impersonating real Americans, stressing the positive side of the mixed blessing that my family’s several decades in this country had by then become. Like many immigrant families, we appreciated the freedom this country afforded for speech and association, for certain kinds of opportunity. And we also kept a rosary of insults and obstacles: the day a man attacked my father as a “dirty Jew,” the hotel my parents were turned away from, the way it felt to be chased home on the days our Catholic neighbors heard in catechism that we had killed their deity, all the things that in those days made us feel that we were in it but not of it, and could never fully belong.
I am not as good as I perhaps should be at the general type of gratitude. When I think of a Source of blessing, I have a habit of noticing the blessings still needed: the difficulty of feeling gratitude for my relative bounty when so many others go hungry. I would say my strength is more appreciation, most easily called into being by the beauty of the natural world, the consolation it provides, the Mystery that has arranged the sub-atomic particles and energies—and my ability to perceive them—into such wondrous forms.
But today, for Thanksgiving, let me praise another mystery, how human beings are able to open their hearts in tender connection, even to strangers, despite the wounds they have sustained in a society that values its myths more than the truth.
This past week saw the advance release of yet another study demonstrating the obvious, that Americans tend to associate lightness of complexion with virtue and value, and darkness with the opposite. In this study, participants were 90 percent white, but there are also quite a few studies showing the tilt toward lighter skin as a positive within communities of color in the U.S., where the larger society’s prejudice infiltrates intra-group relationships.
These studies focus on individual perception, not social policy or institutional structures, but what they discover in the little world of an individual consciousness is not so different from the big picture. The legal basis for the color bar has been removed. Individuals of color may excel and achieve positions of high status as corporate CEOs, elected officials, scholars, professionals, artists and athletes. And yet the presumptions woven into the very structures and fabric of our society remain largely unchanged.
Young people of color are shuffled to the criminal justice system for transgressions that might earn white suburban kids a stern talking-to or some extra counseling. The lowest-paying jobs, the most dangerous and unhealthy work, go mostly to people of color. Low-income neighborhoods are systematically deprived of the capital and assistance that would enable residents to improve them, but resources flow to the very same streets when low-income residents are displaced through advantages offered to developers. A vast quantity of chatter about family and social pathologies is generated in lieu of actually changing social conditions to give everyone a decent livelihood.
Over and over again, focus-group research confirms that when most citizens of this nation think of the word “American,” few bring to mind the kind of odd and foreign group sitting at my childhood Thanksgiving table. Indeed, few see the faces of first nations people and of the descendants of those who lived in California before it became a state, although their time on this land has been long indeed. Our embedded idea of true belonging reflects an image that owes more to retrograde children’s books and TV commercials than to the actuality of our streets and neighborhoods. I stand in awe of the strength and persistence of symbols in the face of a reality that so powerfully contradicts them.
I have been conducting my own little study on my walks by the water in the very diverse community where I live. I am interested in conviviality, so I make it a point to nod and smile to passers-by along the way. There is a middle-distance in which two walkers notice each other’s approach, but can’t yet see clearly enough to read expressions or allow their eyes to meet. At this distance, many faces of various complexions are locked in the “off” position. Sometimes the blankness means “I won’t notice you if you don’t notice me; we’ll avoid the discomfort by pretending.” Sometimes it means “Don’t bother me.” Sometimes it means “I won’t give you the chance to snub me.” A certain number of walkers—again, of all complexions—pass by without ever switching on. But other times, when I manage to catch someone’s eye and a smile encapsulates an instant of fellowship, there is a fleeting transformation, like a door suddenly opening onto a sunny day.
So that is what I will give thanks for: the eternal optimism of the human desire to see and be seen, to connect despite a lifetime of insults, to click hearts as we pass by, like two full glasses meeting over the Thanksgiving table. This is what sustains us, from Tisquantum to today.