Every year American families gather around their dinner tables to celebrate what many still believe was a joyful feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans, but for some Black families the holiday has taken on a new meaning based on the dark reality of its true origins.
Thanksgiving has become the holiday that some authors have referred to as “cultural propaganda” because the traditional tale about the day of giving varies greatly from what many historians believe to be true.
Most American school children will learn a heartwarming story of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting together to share a delightful feast on what was allegedly the first Thanksgiving Day, completely unaware that Thanksgiving’s true roots marked historical milestone of the slaughter of Native Americans.
For some Black people, the transformation of the historic day into a traditional celebration of thanks is yet another way America is hoping to sweep its ugly history under the rug.
“At this point – at this time where information is so readily available to everyone and anyone, why is it so important that we keep perpetuating this lie,” said Vernelle Taylor, a 58-year-old African American woman from Jonesboro who described herself as a stay-at-home grandmother. “I think it’s important for everyone to know where this day really originated from, but you really want to see African Americans acknowledge this because this should hit close to home for us… It should remind us of our ancestors too.”
The history of Thanksgiving can be traced back to a tale that sounds all too familiar to many people of color – white conquerors invading a land, claiming it as their own and taking the lives of the land’s indigenous people for their own gain.
Taylor said that she does not celebrate Thanksgiving although one of her three daughters has a large family gathering for the holiday every year.
“I never go,” Taylor said. “I’ll go the day after or the day before. I love to see my family but I’m not sitting at a table to forget what [colonists] have done to these people – what they have done to us.”
As it turns out, many Black families feel the same way.
Atlanta Blackstar conducted a random survey of 130 Black people and discovered that more than 60 did not celebrate Thanksgiving because they felt it would be a celebration of what some referred to as the “genocide” of Native Americans.
“It’s genocide,” said Marlon Tillman, a 26-year-old vocal coach from Savannah, Georgia. “Let’s call it what it is. When you put it that way nobody wants to sit around a table anymore ‘cause they know that’s wrong. They know that’s not right.”
For some families, however, the holiday was about “redefining” its dark past and turning it into something more positive.
Out of the 62 participants who said they did not celebrate Thanksgiving, more than 40 admitted to still having family dinners together on the holiday.
“I say I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving because I don’t,” said Kevin Gray, a recent graduate from Georgia State University. “I do get together with family because it’s a nice thing to do but you won’t hear any of us say ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ We just enjoy each other and, you know, we’ll watch football or something and we’ll eat good but it’s not because of that day…and what that day means.”
Gray went on to explain that his family has formed its own traditions around that day but they would never refer to it as Thanksgiving because that “name has been taken.”
“We know we’re going to meet up on that Thursday but it’s not like we’re going to say we’re meeting up on Thanksgiving,” he added. “That name is taken. Thanksgiving already stands for something and it’s something I don’t really want to celebrate.”
Other families had the same idea although they had no problem referring to the holiday as Thanksgiving as long as they knew they were not commemorating the slaughter of Native Americans.
“I almost don’t know how to answer because when you sit down and think, ‘Do I celebrate Thanksgiving?’ The answer is obviously no,” said RaVan-Simon Jarrett, an independent contractor from Snellville, Georgia. “But I do celebrate a day of thanks and giving. [I] celebrate what I think Thanksgiving should be. I think people are just looking at the good that can come of that day instead of thinking about the bad. It’s like people are redefining Thanksgiving.”
For people like Tillman, however, the concept of redefining that day just doesn’t feel right.
He compared the redefinition of the holiday to the way people claim to be repurposing the N-word.
“You know how people say ni**a but they say it doesn’t mean what it used to mean,” Tillman said. “That’s how I see this. Thanksgiving – or at least the idea of it – comes from an awful period of history and so does that word. You can’t just decide it means something else, you can’t repurpose history.”
While the way the holiday is celebrated varies greatly between each individual, more than 90 participants admitted that the holiday’s history crosses their mind at least once at some point in the day.
“Even if it is just for a second you do think about it and I would like to think everyone does just for a second,” said Aliscia Ray, a fourth-year journalism student at Georgia State University. “It might be quick but I think you do kind of say, ‘Hey, this is what really happened.’ What you do after that is kind of up to you.”