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Celebrating 400 years of revisionist history

Rev. Irene Monroe

Before this year’s national celebration of Thanksgiving, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, just 43 miles from Cambridge, where I reside, celebrated its 400th Thanksgiving anniversary. The nationally televised extravaganza venerated the arrival of European Pilgrims to America in 1620. Packaged in the promotion was the story of these early Pilgrims’ heroic voyage on the Mayflower and the beginning of American democracy that President John Quincy Adams depicted as “the earliest example of civil government established by the act of the people to be governed.” The promotion depicted a cooperative, cordial relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

This Thanksgiving arrives amid a continued COVID pandemic that has ravaged marginalized communities of color as the country reckons with its persistent inequities. For example, this year, Massachusetts celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day. The NFL team formerly called the Washington Redskins is now the Washington Football Team. And television images of whites doing “war whoops” and “tomahawk chops” are now frowned upon.

For Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not cause for celebration. Why would they celebrate the people who tried to destroy them? Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning.

The first group of Pilgrims were refugees, a group America closes her doors to now. In their dogged pursuit of religious liberty, the Pilgrims’ actions brought about the genocide of a people and a historical amnesia. Celebrating the arrival of the Pilgrims hints at a continued revisionist history. As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the whole story of the Pilgrims’ arrival.

“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.”

Misrepresentations about what was served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 need to be corrected, too. For example, 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.

Malcolm X said in 1964, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” 

Memory is transgressive against glorified lies, for example, the prevailing Lost Cause myth revering Confederate soldiers as America’s true patriots in the Civil War. Memory is subversive in its enduring power to disrupt historical amnesia and a canonical past unwillingness to confront itself. For example, Jan. 6 is depicted by some as American patriots defending freedom instead of an insurrection.

On a trip home to New York City in 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 Blacks 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 focus solely on the Plymouth Rock story. We should focus on creating this nation as a solid rock that rests on a multicultural and democratic foundation. This way, we’d recognize the continuing struggles of marginalized groups, especially our Native American brothers and sisters, on Thanksgiving Day.

Irene Monroe is a theologian and syndicated columnist.

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