Before this year's national Thanksgiving holiday, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts — located just 43 miles southwest from Cambridge, where I reside — celebrated its 400th Thanksgiving anniversary. The televised extravaganza venerated the arrival of European Pilgrims in America and promoted the revisionist tale of a cooperative and cordial relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.
This Thanksgiving arrives as the country reckons with its past by re-examining its roots of persistent inequities. This year, Massachusetts celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day. In 2020, the Washington NFL team dropped the racial slur from its name. And in this supposedly more "woke" moment, television images of white people doing "war whoops" and "tomahawk chops" are now frowned upon.
In contrast, the town of Plymouth welcomed a crowd to celebrate Thanksgiving’s 400th anniversary the week before Native Americans observe a National Day of Mourning.
Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning, a reminder that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the beginning of the persecution of Native Americans and their long history of bloodshed with European settlers.
The first Pilgrims were refugees — a group America closes her doors to now. In their dogged pursuit of religious liberty, their actions brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual celebration.
However, in this moment of national reckoning, celebrating the Pilgrims’ arrival hints at our country’s continued revisionist history. As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the larger story.
"Most pilgrims would have died during the harsh winter had it not been for the open arms of the Native Americans," Taylor Bell wrote in "The Hypocrisy of Refusing Refugees at Thanksgiving."
The misrepresentations about what was served at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621 needs to be corrected, too. There is no evidence that turkey was offered, and pie could not have been served because there was no flour or butter available for the crust in those days.
Also, the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, after first stopping in Provincetown, now known as an LGBTQ+ vacation hot spot.
During a speech in March 1964, Malcolm X said, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” Let us remember the rock is a direct consequence of the continued struggle Native Americans confront today, as well as Black, brown and other oppressed people in this country.
Memory is a form of resistance. It's transgressive against glorified lies. Also, memory is subversive in its enduring power to disrupt historical amnesia and a canonical past unwillingness to confront itself. For example, consider the narratives of Confederate soldiers being America’s true patriots in the Civil War, or modern-day Americans defending freedom at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
On a trip home to New York City in May 2004, I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to view the UNESCO Slave Route Project, "Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery." The exhibit marked the United Nations General Assembly's resolution proclaiming 2004 "The International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition."
In highlighting that African Americans should not be shamed by slavery, the exhibit placard stated: "By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of the tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized, and by assigning it its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember."
We should not solely focus on the story of Plymouth Rock. Instead, as Americans, we should focus on creating this nation as a solid rock that rests on a multicultural and democratic foundation. This way, we'd recognize marginalized groups, especially our Native American brothers' and sisters' ongoing struggles, particularly on Thanksgiving Day.