Robert Jensen : How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving,” painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930) / Wikimedia Commons.

How I stopped hating Thanksgiving
And learned to be afraid

This is a society in which even progressive people routinely allow national and family traditions to trump fundamental human decency.

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / November 20, 2009

I have stopped hating Thanksgiving and learned to be afraid of the holiday.

Over the past few years a growing number of white people have joined the longstanding indigenous people’s critique of the holocaust denial that is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday. In two past essays (here and here) I examined the disturbing nature of a holiday rooted in a celebration of the European conquest of the Americas, which means the celebration of the Europeans’ genocidal campaign against indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.

Many similar pieces have been published in predominantly white left/progressive media, while indigenous people continue to mark the holiday as a “National Day of Mourning.”

In recent years I have refused to participate in Thanksgiving Day meals, even with friends and family who share this critical analysis and reject the national mythology around manifest destiny. In bowing out of those gatherings, I would often tell folks that I hated Thanksgiving. I realize now that “hate” is the wrong word to describe my emotional reaction to the holiday. I am afraid of Thanksgiving. More accurately, I am afraid of what Thanksgiving tells us about both the dominant culture and much of the alleged counterculture.

Here’s what I think it tells us: As a society, the United States is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt. This is a society in which even progressive people routinely allow national and family traditions to trump fundamental human decency. It’s a society in which, in the privileged sectors, getting along and not causing trouble are often valued above honesty and accountability.

Though it’s painful to consider, it’s possible that such a society is beyond redemption. Such a consideration becomes frightening when we recognize that all this goes on in the most affluent and militarily powerful country in the history of the world, but a country that is falling apart — an empire in decline.

Thanksgiving should teach us all to be afraid.

Although it’s well known to anyone who wants to know, let me summarize the argument against Thanksgiving: European invaders exterminated nearly the entire indigenous population to create the United States. Without that holocaust, the United States as we know it would not exist. The United States celebrates a Thanksgiving Day holiday dominated not by atonement for that horrendous crime against humanity but by a falsified account of the “encounter” between Europeans and American Indians. When confronted with this, most people in the United States (outside of indigenous communities) ignore the history or attack those who make the argument. This is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

In left/radical circles, even though that basic critique is widely accepted, a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it in any fashion. Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don’t define holidays individually or privately — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. To pretend we can do that also is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

I press these points with no sense of moral superiority. For many years I didn’t give these questions a thought, and for some years after that I sat sullenly at Thanksgiving dinners, unwilling to raise my voice. For the past few years I’ve spent the day alone, which was less stressful for me personally (and, probably, less stressful for people around me) but had no political effect. This year I’ve avoided the issue by accepting a speaking invitation in Canada, taking myself out of the country on that day. But that feels like a cheap resolution, again with no political effect in the United States.

The next step for me is to seek creative ways to use the tension around this holiday for political purposes, to highlight the white-supremacist and predatory nature of the dominant culture, then and now. Is it possible to find a way to bring people together in public to contest the values of the dominant culture? How can those of us who want to reject that dominant culture meet our intellectual, political, and moral obligations? How can we act righteously without slipping into self-righteousness? What strategies create the most expansive space possible for honest engagement with others?

Along with allies in Austin, I’ve struggled with the question of how to create an alternative public event that could contribute to a more honest accounting of the American holocausts in the past (not only the indigenous genocide, but African slavery) and present (the murderous U.S. assault on the developing world, especially in the past six decades, in places such as Vietnam and Iraq).

Some have suggested an educational event, bringing in speakers to talk about those holocausts. Others have suggested a gathering focused on atonement. Should the event be more political or more spiritual? Perhaps some combination of methods and goals is possible.

However we decide to proceed, we can’t ignore the ugly ideological realities of the holiday. My fear of those realities is appropriate but facing reality need not leave us paralyzed by fear; instead it can help us understand the contours of the multiple crises — economic and ecological, political and cultural — that we face. The challenge is to channel our fear into action. I hope that next year I will find a way to take another step toward a more meaningful honoring of our intellectual, political, and moral obligations.

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, I’m eager to hear about the successful strategies of others. For such advice, I would be thankful.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism of the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). Jensen can be reached at His articles on The Rag Blog are here and his writing can also be found here.]

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18 Responses to Robert Jensen : How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving

  1. Anonymous says:

    I thought the purpose of the holiday was to thank God for our blessings. Not being religious, I just use it to reflect on my good fortune in having caring parents, a chance at a good education and more or less continuous employment.

    I don’t celebrate killing natives and don’t know of anybody who does, nor do I know of anyone who is unaware of the manner in which those peoples were pushed aside.

    I like to cook turkey myself and eat sandwiches from leftovers the week after.

    The natives who lived where I now live were disliked by the other natives in the neighborhood because of some of their dietary habits. If the other natives had had access to gunpowder a little earlier there would not have been any Karankawas when the Spaniards showed up.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bah humbug, Bob! This is the least consumer oriented holiday and the one that can inspire gratitude. I like it for those reasons. Alice E

  3. Mariann says:

    As a kid in Ft. Worth, I learned that Thanksgiving was a celebration of friendship between Native Americans and newly-arrived Pilgrims, who would have starved to death if not for the folks who already lived in Massachusetts.

    OK, that is a very naive view, and historically questionable — BUT the message of the holiday as it was handed down by my folks, and as far as I know all of my kinfolks and certainly in the Ft. Worth public schools, was one of tolerance, sharing, and brotherhood. Gratitude was in there too, I guess, mixed in with some hyper-patriotism in the schools and religiosity at church, but I didn’t hear all that at home.

    It was like the song they taught us in Sunday School: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world!” Growing up and seeing that bigots did NOT love all the children of the world, and learning of the outrages perpetrated against red, yellow, and black people by white people, didn’t make me want to repudiate the values of Thanksgiving or of Jesus; it made me feel ashamed that white people had essentially bitten the hands that fed them time and time again, and made me want to take the values I’d learned away from the hypocrites who also, btw, stole my flag.

    What does give me pause today about the traditional feast is what I’ve learned about the meat and poultry industry, and the national epidemic of obesity!

    For several years when my son was growing up in Austin, instead of cooking a big meal at home, his Dad and I took him to the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving dinner — pay what you can. He has known about homelessness, and has known homeless people as friends and as people of value, since he was a baby. I think the values that parents and community impart are the ones that stick with us all our lives.

  4. I was duly educated not only by the article, but by the comments above me.

    I guess because I’m thankful every day; don’t cook my meal ‘specifically’ for a certain holiday (or choose certain foods for that holiday), I prefer to volunteer my time at the food kitchens and soup kitchens or senior center who all address the needs of those less fortunate.

    My birthday falls on Thanksgiving this year; I won’t be hurrying out to be pampered with a ‘birthday dinner’ nor considering why I should ‘feast’ on this day.

    We live 5 miles from the Mojave Indian Reservation; they have a huge restaurant where they are serving a Thanksgiving meal, so it’s possible at least some of the native-Americans have found a way to forgive those who did commit what I also call, a genocide.

    Frankly, the ‘red letter’ holidays have all taken on such a commercial meaning during my life-time, I find it hard to ‘celebrate’ these days publicly, so I keep in my heart and mind, what I find ‘special’ about them.

    One thing is certain; we do not celebrate or participate in anything that is born from a memorial or incident that involves terror; death, or inequities……

    Celebrating with reverence and modesty, as well as helping those who are STILL in need, seems to be where our comfort zone lies.

  5. Fed Up says:

    Well, folks, I hate to be a barn burner, but the real deal is that Thanksgiving was first declared by Abraham Lincoln after Sherman took Atlanta during the US civil war in 1863 (some of you might recall this in Ken Burn’s series on PBS concerning the US Civil War):

    “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

    “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

    “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

    Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863″

    Apparently, the defeated South did not much like this type of Thanksgiving, and so the current one based on a myth was evolved for the sake of the tender feelings of the former slave owners who then became custodians of fuedal apartied called Jim Crow which they quietly practiced while the victorious northern capitalists turned their attention to the extermination of the Native Americans in the western territories, which they had so recently prevented the slave owners from expanding to.

    Life is very complicated is all I have to say!

  6. Anonymous says:

    The way I heard that was that Lincoln was giving thanks for all the runaway slaves and German and Irish immigrants who joined the Union army and made the continuation of the war possible.

    As for northern capitalists and genocide, the most pressure for an aggressive policy came not from the north but the west. For some reason all the frontier types did not like living around the natives, who persisted in showing their displeasure with the white folks’ arrival by occasionally killing them or stealing their children.

    Then as now a lot of the Americans did not distinguish among those who attacked them and decided the best way to deal with the red man was to whup up on the whole bunch and either kill them or herd them onto reservations.

  7. Richard says:

    Aww fed up, what a party pooper. Thanks for the education and “the rest of the story.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    The professor makes his point. However, feeling obliged to leave the country to avoid cognitive dissonance arising from exposure to a tradition which, however historically misguided, brings together ever-fractured family, friends and communities seems a rather precious conceit. A more generous spirit might just spend a day feeding a few needy local folks.

  9. Janet says:

    I thought Thanksgiving was celebration of the harvest, but let us do keep in mind the changes to agriculture since Nixon’s Butz “turned it around 180 degrees” (his words).
    Cruelty free please,


  10. Fed up says:

    “As for northern capitalists and genocide, the most pressure for an aggressive policy came not from the north but the west. For some reason all the frontier types did not like living around the natives, who persisted in showing their displeasure with the white folks’ arrival by occasionally killing them or stealing their children.”

    In answer, (1) I have not noted that governments — also called “the state” and possessed of armies and a judiciary and police — are required by settlers to come in and do anything at all, much less exterminate entire villages of native people, and (2) the specific government you mention might have evacuated the settlers, did ja ever think of that?

    On he historic record, I have not found even ONE instance of where the Federal Army came in on the side of the Native Americans, yet the outrages of settlers against Indians are well documented.

    It is preposterous to claim that the United States government was forced to follow the idiocies of settlers. Who bankrolled the settlers? Who let them in, and if they went in illegally, why did not the US government evict them.

    God knows the governments provide support for evictions of pleanty of Americans now and there is no way out of it, none at all.

    Just like with the Indians.

  11. Pollyanna says:

    Janet reminds me that the roots of most of our holidays go farther back than the Civil War, even farther back than the landing of the Pilgrims. Goodwife Kate Braun, I see your seasonal musings for the Rag Blog have previously discussed Samhain (now more commonly known as Hallowe’en); what can you tell us about this turkey shoot in November?

  12. Anonymous says:

    Dear Pollyanna; The Seasonal Messages I write relate to the 8-spoked Wheel of Life that chronicles the passing seasons of the Solstices (aka Yule and Litha) and Equinoxes (aka Ostara and Mabon) and the 4 cross-quarters Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain. Thanksgiving ix a secular celebration that, as far as I know, is not attached to some other religious- or seasonal-based tradition such as Yule with Saturnalia and Mithraic lore or Ostara with Easter, chocolate, bunnies, and eggs. However, as we get closer to the end of a year and the beginning of a new year, Spirit frequently prompts us to review the year that is ending and do a bit of a personal inventory in preparation for the plans we would like to set in motion in the coming year, and Thanksgiving is a good time to do this either as an individual or as a group. Acknowledging gratitude to persons, businesses, assiciations and spiritual entities is one more way to keep ourselves aware that there is much, much more to Life as we know it than the busy-ness of our lives gives us time to notice on a daily basis. It’s not so much about what we eat or how much we eat or what football teams are available to be cheered for, but more about caring and sharing and acknowledging that we are One People living on One Planet and that we are All responsible for the life of and on that planet. I suggest taking some time this Thanksgiving to contemplate the Oneness that encompasses us all, trusting that the contemplation will lead to further enlightenment. It won’t hurt and you don’t have to make promises you might not be able to keep:):) Best wishes, Kate

  13. Pollyanna says:

    Thanks, Kate — good suggestions and a good way of thinking about the day!

  14. Sea Turtle says:

    It’s pretty ironic that we celebrate “Holocaust Denial Day” by slaughtering millions of Turkeys. You will not be alone in your fasting or reflection this year Professor.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’ll value Thanksgiving as a much needed day off, bearing in mind that it is a memorial day for holocaust victims.

  16. Anonymous says:

    you are a moron, drink eat and kill ,i’m from massachusetts and the next civil war im moving south to kill some liberal turkeys

  17. Anonymous says:

    Jensen is a communist malcontent who who gets off on feeling morally superior to others through the use of tortured logic and the ever so tired canard of white privilege/guilt. He’s a professor who’s never had to make it in the real world, and can hide behind tenure, telling the taxpayers who cover his mortgage what horrible people they are. What a sad pathetic little man.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Jensen is right. These ritualistic “meals” are all about genocide and gorging on the fruits of empire.

    Every year, Jensen ought to attend one of these pro-genocide Nazi-Klan gatherings, and inform the guests they are worse than Nazis.

    The only injustice that compares to Thanksgiving (Genocidegiving, I call it) is allowing white males to become journalism professors. The least that our irredemiably racist society could do, by way of atonement and reparation, is to reserve such lucrative positions for the persons fromm Historically Oppressed Communities, such as strippers.

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