By Meteor Blades
Over the past week, my wife and I have had probably a dozen conversations with Los Angelenos of various ethnic and religious backgrounds talking about the turkey they'll be eating day after tomorrow. Doesn't matter if they're originally from Senegal or Guatemala, Belarus or Vietnam, Scotland or China, it's the same story with all of them: turkey has to be on the table.
Not that it'll be a traditional turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and yams and stuffing. Trimmings can range from Libyan tajeen to a cold Vietnamese egg soup whose name I've forgotten. And everybody's bird seems to be done just a little differently. I'm eager to someday try Thai turkey, which I've heard is definitely not for mild palates.
I don't buy the "melting pot" theory of American history, nor am I a sappy kind of guy. On the other hand, since I had my Thanksgiving "conversion," I've found something distinctly appealing, yes, even uplifting about this widespread integration of cultures through the medium of food and family get-together.
About that conversion - normally, I don't reprise what I've written previously, but today I'm breaking my own rule to repeat what I wrote at this time last year, on November 23, 2004. If you've read it before, I apologize:
I love conversation, I love food and I love celebrations. So, right now, with a four-day weekend coming up, I'm smiling ear to ear because we're hosting one dinner party and going to two others for Thanksgiving. A few years ago, I wouldn't've done this.
When I was a child, we never celebrated Thanksgiving. My grandfather forbade it. A white man's holiday based on white men's lies, he said. He was politically correct decades before PC became a cliché. This was doubly disappointing for me. I was born on Thanksgiving. Actually, November 28th. But in 1946, Thanksgiving fell on that date, and ever since, it's been my designated birthday, whatever the actual date.
While other kids, including other Indian kids, celebrated Thanksgiving with all kinds of food, our house might as well have been shrouded in crepe. Based on what made it to our table, I think he may even have told my grandmother to cook less than usual. Nobody grumbled. My grandfather was an honest, principled man, but quick-tempered, and although he
rejected almost every other teaching in the Bible, he believed fully in the bit that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We were not spoiled.
We left the South and my grandfather when I was 10. I had half a dozen guests at my first-ever birthday party - on Thanksgiving Day - when I was 11. I was ecstatic. Every year thereafter, until my senior year in high school, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my birthday with a party. Cake and turkey. That year, 41 years ago, I began reading in earnest about America's historical treatment of indigenous people, my ancestors.
That year, November 28th actually did fall on Thanksgiving. I didn't celebrate. No party. And that's the way it was for the next 29 years, during which I reiterated my grandfather's warning.
True enough, the descendants of Massasoit's Wampanoags who sat down to a feast with the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1621 after rescuing them from certain starvation got hot lead in return during King Philip's War 54 years later.
And that slaughter - which allowed more immigrants onto what was once Indian land - kept being repeated for the next 220 years right across America. My own people - Seminoles, an amalgam of Creeks, Apalachees, runaway slaves and "renegade" whites - fought three wars, and kept a few slivers of their traditional lands.
Every year, I ranted about these grave injustices, and about the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, and the fate of the peaceful people who suddenly were in the way. And then, a decade ago, I let it go. Not that I changed my mind about the atrocities that had occurred or the lies that had been told about them. Nor did I become enamored with the iconography of Thanksgiving, including elementary school displays of construction paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands.
But I got tired of missing out on the celebration and the food ... and I missed having a birthday party. And I realized, finally, that I had missed the point. This year, I'll be together with some of my best friends, white, red and black. As we have for several Thanksgivings, we'll tell the children (and grandchildren) the true story of Thanksgiving.
And we'll give thanks that we live in a country where we are not shackled to the past.