Rethinking the Story of Thanksgiving

The original Thanksgiving of our national legend is the story of vulnerable newcomers, immigrants, supported by those who called the place home for generations or more. It is, perhaps, the one time in our American story that we give a nod to ourselves as the other. Often, even in the story of the first Thanksgiving we gloss over reality and cast ourselves in the leading role, relegating the Wampanoag to a supporting one.

There is much we could learn from the mythology of our own beginnings, if we could come to the story with new eyes.

When I spent a year living in England (a temporary immigrant), I and the other American students in the college tended to cluster together. It provided a sense of security and familiarity even in a relatively similar host culture. Like immigrants everywhere we were gathering with others from home, carrying on our own familiar traditions, possibly challenging the norms of our new home. Of course, we didn’t think of it like that at the time–we were just trying to thrive as transplants.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, it was a holiday for only twelve of us. We were (academic) pilgrims seeking opportunity in the old world. A minority among natives. Without kitchens in our rooms, we were dependent on the dining room for sustenance. Fortunately, the kitchen staff were kind. They tried to make us feel at home by serving their version of a Thanksgiving feast. Yet, it was unlike our familiar fare–nary a pumpkin or apple in sight. For dessert they served a Mississippi mud pie.

Another experience that was eye opening was an excursion into Scotland at the New Year. Since I was traveling alone, I signed up with a tour group. Our guide was a Scot. Most of the other travelers were Aussies or New Zealanders. Only two of us were American–and we didn’t know each other. I spent much of the trip watching. I formed opinions of what Aussies and Kiwis were like as a (potentially) representative group. I also watched the other American. I was struck by what Americans must look like to others around the world–loud, brash, demanding, entitled. And I was sorry to have left that (potentially) representative impression with the fun-loving, but considerate members of our tour group. It struck me most profoundly when they dubbed me “The Quiet American,” as though it were an anomaly.

That year some of the many theater productions I attended were Shakespeare’s plays. A few were what I considered traditional stagings. Many were intriguing because the directors took a show written to be set in one time and place and transplanted it. Twelfth Night was translated into a kind of timeless Lego landscape. One of the history plays, a Richard or a Henry, perhaps, was set in what looked like World War I with dough-boys as the characters. Another was set in Imperial Japan. By changing the time and place, the director was reminding us of the universality of the stories told through these hundreds-of-year-old plays.

Lately, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about immigration and refugees in particular. What if we had a director today who would recast the Thanksgiving story? Maybe Anglo-Americans would stand in for the role of Native Americans (or First Immigrants as my father refers to them). In this role, perhaps, we would acknowledge the fear and uncertainty that come with having Others land on our shores, rely on our resources, and often depend (we imagine) on our generosity. It seems we’ve previously forgotten to acknowledge the very real concerns of the Wampanoag and others who were already here when we landed.

Perhaps the director will cast Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis as the Pilgrims—those who braved the unknown and survived (or didn’t) countless horrors and deprivations for a chance at a better life. Those who landed in a place both beautiful and promising, but also dangerous and menacing—a place where to carve out survival, let alone a thriving existence, is an uncertain venture at best. Maybe the director would cast men, families, or unaccompanied minors from Central and South America fleeing poverty, extra-judicial killings and ruthless drug cartels.

What must life be like that a mother would rather send her child alone on a journey of hundreds or thousands of miles with no guarantee of successfully reaching safety than keep them home? What would possess a mother to climb aboard an ill-suited and overcrowded raft with a toddler for the chance of arriving in Europe? Maybe it’s like the Irish mothers of the mid-nineteenth century who sent their children away to avoid starvation.

They are us. Who we were yesterday. Who we’d be if we left home now.

Maybe if we, as today’s Americans, were to see that version of our story, we’d come away thinking and feeling differently—kinder, more compassionate—like we all are part of the same story.

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