Larry Smith

The list of adaptations, adoptions and adjustments that Black folks have made vis-à-vis our experiences in America sometimes seems infinite. Whether it is taking the least desirable parts of a pig and transforming them into time-honored delicacies (think “chitlins”), turning horrible training conditions into military superiority (as the Tuskegee Airmen and “Black Panthers” tank battalion did in World War II), or even repurposing the worst racial slur in our language, we have excelled at dedicating our creativity to taking that which is undesirable and making it valuable and enviable. Yet, some instances are more complex, as is the case when it comes to America’s annual observance of Thanksgiving. 

Over the years I have engaged with white friends, acquaintances and strangers who are offended by the decision of some African Americans not to celebrate Thanksgiving (or the Fourth of July) due to “political” reasons: “This holiday was not meant to apply to Black folks, so my family doesn’t celebrate it.” My response to such objections is simple. I ask whether they, as white Americans, celebrate Kwanzaa. Not surprisingly, I have yet to receive an affirmative answer. Other African Americans have taken a different tact. Perhaps the most succinct (and shade-inducing) response is that of iconic rapper KRS-One, who has referred to the holiday as “Thanks-taking.” (Clearly, this is a reference to the white colonists who may — or may not — have had a truce with Native Americans in early 17th century commemorations.) 

The issue of whether African Americans should celebrate Thanksgiving should be considered within the context of the historical debate regarding the holiday’s origins. Several years ago, TIME magazine ran an article about the fact that children are frequently taught that English pilgrims established Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 doing so with the Wampanoag Indians. The article goes on to state that, after President John F. Kennedy (a Massachusetts native) proudly referred to this tradition, State Sen. John J. Wicker took such umbrage that he sent a telegram to JFK apprising him that the first such celebration actually had taken place in 1619 at what is now Berkeley Plantation in Wicker’s home state of Virginia. 

The observance came about following the landing of 38 English settlers on the banks of the James River on Dec. 4, 1619. At the direction of the British monarchy, the settlers celebrated their successful voyage with “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was special assistant to President Kennedy, wrote to Sen. Wicker: “You are quite right. I can only plead unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House Staff.” On Nov. 5, 1963, Kennedy recognized both states in public remarks. (He would be assassinated on Nov. 22, six days before Thanksgiving that year.) 

Of note is that fact that the 1619 “holy day” of fasting and reflection was very different from how Americans observe Thanksgiving today. It lacked turkey and dressing. More importantly, it lacked Native Americans. Thus, people of color were explicitly not a part of the inaugural Thanksgiving celebration. As a result, it is not uncommon for Blacks not to celebrate the holiday today — at least in the same way that most white Americans do. Interestingly, as the Civil War raged in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. (George Washington had made a similar declaration, but some members of Congress at the time argued that the power to create such holidays rested with the states, not the federal government.)

My views regarding Thanksgiving have evolved over time. Today my perspective is shaped primarily by my faith. In short, I agree with the sentiment of gospel songwriter Leonard Banks: “Every day is a day of Thanksgiving. God’s been so good to me. Every day He’s blessing me. Every day is a day of Thanksgiving. Take the time to glorify the Lord today.”

 Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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