On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the civil war, a time of great challenge amongst a divided nation, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation. “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... It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.
Yet, much of the credit should go Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady Book which she edited for more than 40 years (and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). Hale, an advocate for women’s education, was pivotal in the founding of Vassar College. She was also the person who, over many years, petitioned for an official Thanksgiving holiday.
So, why is it that most Americans connect Thanksgiving to pilgrims and native peoples sharing a bountiful harvest more than 100 years prior to Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation?
The answer lies in the same place that sustains many of the other myths we are taught. Myths such as racial and gender equality or the myth of meritocracy. These myths, and many others, are taught to us as part of systemic structures created to uphold the privilege of the few at the expense of the many. These myths are firmly rooted in our systemic structures. Elementary school textbooks rarely speak of early women authors like Hale or normalize the success of Blacks and people of color or tell the full truth about how White people “settled” this land. The legal system perpetuates inequitable sentencing that puts many more Black men behind bar for longer times. Old ordinances often impeded or out rightly barred equitable access to home ownership among non-White people and those traditions still have impact. Insurance, medical, and social systems still provide unequal access to healthcare for Blacks, indigenous and people of color. There is institutional employment bias and the list goes on.
The truth is, my own ignorance sometimes plays a part in upholding these structures, even as I try to help dismantle them. After all, it is 2020 and I have just now learned that Thanksgiving was a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” promoted by Sarah Hale and finally proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
Despite all of this, Thanksgiving still reminds me that life without gratitude is no life at all.
Still, one might suggest difficulty in finding gratitude in 2020. I do not. It is the year that America has been brought face-to-face with its current and historic racism, and the structures that have upheld it. We have clearly seen what began when the pilgrims first landed bringing dominance, disease, and death to America’s indigenous people; and what was upheld with even more fervor the day the first African slaves arrived in chains. I am grateful for America’s (re)awakening. It has been a long time coming.
So too is 2020 the year we have struggled against the plague of COVID-19. In this moment we have seen clearly how death and despair can be twisted for political purpose, with Americans forgetting we must be of “one heart and one voice.” Yet, I am grateful for the kindness of friends and neighbors, the grace and fortitude of our medical communities and so many other public servants, and the marvels of science as vaccines emerge.
Today, 157 years after Hale succeeded in her efforts and Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day, I “reverently and gratefully acknowledge” all that I have, with a keen awareness of the privilege that has allowed me my bounty.