In a moving speech given by escaped slave Frederick Douglass on July 5th, 1852 (a portion of which is read by Morgan Freeman below), the question is asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Here is part of his answer:
[The Fourth of July] is a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. . . . Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival.
Douglass’ words can also be applied, I would suggest, to the day which we celebrate today, thus changing the question from “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” to “What, to the American Indian, is your Thanksgiving?”
I would like to offer a few points by way of personal reflection, if I may. First and most obviously, as Americans we have much for which to be thankful: our nation, our democratic form of government, our health, our wealth, and our families are but a few reasons for which we ought to be filled with gratitude, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day.
But with that said, I cannot help but think that there’s something not quite right about my attitude of thankfulness being simple, unmitigated, and unmixed. There’s a certain solemnity that must be mingled with it. Even a sense of shame. I mean, the blessings of nation and property for which we will be giving thanks today didn’t just drop out of the sky like manna from heaven. They had to be won. They had to be taken. They had to be stolen.
Francis Jennings writes of Capt. John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village on the Mystic River near Long Island:
Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors, which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.
The terror was very real among the Indians, but in time they came to meditate upon its foundations. They drew three lessons from the Pequot War: (1) that the Englishmen’s most solemn pledge would be broken whenever obligation conflicted with advantage; (2) that the English way of war had no limit of scruple or mercy; and (3) that weapons of Indian making were almost useless against weapons of European manufacture. These lessons the Indians took to heart.
Chief Luther Standing Bear, in his 1933 autobiography, From the Land of the Spotted Eagle, wrote:
True, the white man brought great change. But the varied fruits of his civilization, though highly colored and inviting, are sickening and deadening. And if it be the part of civilization to maim, rob, and thwart, then what is progress?
I am going to venture that the man who sat on the ground in his tepee meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures, and acknowledging unity with the universe of things, was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. . . .
It is beyond dispute that the gains we enjoy and for which we are thankful were ill-gotten. They are the result of ruthless and shameful warfare waged upon the native peoples of this land, and for this reason, I cannot help but mingle with my gratitude regret.
A further issue — one much more tricky — also arises for me: If I’m to be thankful on Thanksgiving Day, to whom am I to direct that thanks? The obvious answer for many is “God.” But I must confess that I struggle with this. While many would insist that God is the ultimate source of all blessings, is there a distinction to be made between what he allows and what he condones? In other words, does the notion that God presides over all things necessitate the conclusion that God approves of all that he oversees?
To come at this in a roundabout way, Is it right for the child of a jewel thief to thank God for his Xbox?
Sure, he may believe that it is God who is the ultimate Source of that gift (and he may be right), but that doesn’t change the fact that it was purchased with money gained through the hocking of stolen property. Is the child himself personally responsible for his father’s larceny? Of course not. And neither are we today personally responsible for the extermination of the Indians and the theft of their land. But if the child eventually learns where his Xbox came from, that knowledge cannot but taint his enjoyment of it a little (as well as stop his bragging to others about how great it is). And likewise with us and the blessings we have: there’s a sense of humility, of discomfort, and of unease that ought to linger in our minds and hover above our tables today.
Do we not owe Justice at least that much? Do we not owe at least that much to Love?
And as far as how exactly this should all be expressed, that’s a question each person must answer for him- or herself. I will say this much, though: Even a passing thought, a silent prayer, or a brief acknowledgement of the sacrifices that were made to make us all so thankful is hardly an unbearable burden or undue expectation.
After all, the ones who sacrificed the most for our American way of life weren’t even given a say in the matter.