Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feast Your Eyes: The First Thanksgiving

My friend Nathan Baker-Lutz put together this delightful little video that playfully debunks the mental picture most of us have about Thanksgiving.

I hope you'll enjoy watching it with your family sometime on Thanksgiving day - maybe even make it an annual tradition. Not only will you be entertained by it, it will also challenge some fallacious thinking that surrounds the holiday.

We have these contrived mental pictures, I think, mainly because Thanksgiving has become marketable and merchandisable, and such things require oversimplification: iconic images and caricatured characters. Hence the black outfits and belt buckles, for example, or even the forks and turkeys (which would not have been the main course; waterfowl are easier to kill).

Moreover, cultural touchpoints like Thanksgiving allow us to mythologize ourselves, recasting the past to make ourselves feel better about our present. So, for example, we (and by "we" I mean people like me, who trace our lineage back to Europe) remember our Pilgrim ancestors as reaching out to the Native Americans: a convenient image of the brotherhood of man and other self-congratulatory colonialist virtues. (Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!) In reality, it turns out, there's no record of the Pilgrims inviting the Native Americans to the first Thanksgiving, although there is some record of them being in attendance. They may, it turns out, have invited themselves.

These are, by and large, small things. History is not changed in dramatic ways by our getting this or that detail wrong. History as a discipline, in this respect, suffers from poor branding, because that's not what history is. What we learn from these errant details is the role of memory in human agency. When we misremember something, we fill the void of what's true about the past with more convenient "truths," and we step that much more blindly into the future.

In that respect, the book on which Nate's video is based - The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie - is not so much about Thanksgiving as it is about how we approach history. Thanksgiving is a case study equipping us to consider the past more responsibly, which in turn equips us to more responsibly engage our present and future. So, if McKenzie's book is a Thanksgiving feast, the holiday itself is just the stuffing; the discipline of history is turkey (or goose), mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

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