By Julianne Malveaux
Theoretically, Thanksgiving celebrates the breaking of bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims, who might have starved where it not for the generosity of those who first occupied this country. This history is written as if were a moment of friendship and fellowship, notwithstanding the fact that there were Pilgrims who, no sooner than they rose from the turkey-laden dinner table, were plotting ways to take over Native American land. That part of the story is rarely told. Native Americans might have been better off had they shared their meal with snakes (maybe they did) than sharing with the murderous Pilgrims.
Pilgrims and their descendants developed the myth of the shared Thanksgiving. The myth leaves out the unprovoked massacre of tens of thousands on Native Americans because the same Pilgrims who needed food also needed land. They proceeded, systematically, to remove Native people from their own land. Too many history books portray Native American people as savages, and much of the fiction that derives from that era portrays Pilgrims as frightened victims. Native people are portrayed as predators eager to “scalp” the Pilgrims and later, those soldiers who attempted to take Midwest lands. Yet who would not defend their land? And why were people, the original inhabitants of this land, dumped into reservations?
No wonder many Native American people consider Thanksgiving Day a national day of mourning. No wonder many protest the conventional interpretation of Thanksgiving Day. No wonder so many bristle and the lens of history that allows distortion and the celebration of Pilgrim theft.
To add insult to injury, Thanksgiving Day has now devolved into a capitalistic orgy of excessive spending. Commercial establishments open much of the day on the Day of Mourning, and on the next day, described as “Black Friday.” The day is so named because spending on that day is likely to put many companies “in the black.” The Thanksgiving season is less a season of mourning, or even thanksgiving, as an excessive capitalist debacle. People have actually been stomped to death as others stepped over them to race for bargains.
The mythology is similar with Christmas Day, which is supposed to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Historians note that the season of celebration is wrong, and that aspects of the story are rife with myth. Sometimes, however, myth simply allows people something to believe in. Most egregious to Christians, however, is the say that Christmas becomes X-Mas, and the day becomes less about the birth of Christ than about the presents people put under a tree. Equally annoying is the Santa Claus myth of a pudgy little man wearing a red hat and sporting long a How many children know more about Santa Claus than the real meaning of the day.
Like the Thanksgiving season, the Christmas season has also become a season of crass capitalism, as consumers flock to department stores for “after Christmas sales.” Profligate spending in November and December represents as much as 20 percent of annual spending, though a typical monthly spend is about 8 percent. No wonder there is an endless promotion for spending during this time period. And no wonder customers respond.
The Kwanzaa holiday, as created by Maulana Karenga has its share of myth. Karenga developed Kwanzaa as a way of celebrating universal values that have special meaning for African American people. One of the principles is celebrated each day ending, on January 1, with the final principle Imani, or faith. Crass spending and gift giving is discouraged. It is true that Karenga “made up” the Kwanzaa holiday as a way of bringing African American people together to reflect on values, with the placement of it after Christmas as an alternative to the mutation of the Christmas holiday, and also a holiday more meditative and secular than Christmas. Myth?
The “first fruit,” or first harvest, is more likely to occur in fall than in winter. Maulana Karenga must be horrified that the capitalists have been able to corrupt Kwanzaa with Kwanzaa cards on sale from commercial companies, using Kwanzaa more as a profit making than a contemplative occasion. In the name of cultural diversity, people walk around saying “Happy Kwanzaa” as if it is the same as “Merry Christmas.”
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are examples of the way we use myth either to denigrate or to elevate. The celebration of these holidays also reminds us of the biased lens of history, a lens that needs to be examined.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.