Black people have used Thanksgiving as opportunities to celebrate communion, togetherness, and bonds that aren’t as readily accessible as they are needed.
This essay contains discussions of genocide, anti-indigenous sentiments/violence, and mentions r/pe
By Gloria Oladipo
As a Black person and someone who identifies as “socially aware” (social justice warrior adjacent), I used to hate that I celebrated Thanksgiving. Why celebrate pilgrims and the theft of Native American land and the continued devastation of North America?
Regardless of their original intentions, the pilgrims and puritans were and should be remembered as colonizers who brought nothing but misery and disease to indigenous people just trying to exist. Not to mention, the same justifications for whites pillaging North America have also been used to devastate the African continent, creating centuries of generational trauma I am a direct descendant of. But, here I am, still boarding ~15-hour trains to Chicago to “celebrate” this “holiday” with my family and friends.
Upon further reflection though, I realized that nothing I do on Thanksgiving has anything to do with celebrating European fuckshit. Around our table, as we give thanks, break bread with one another, and bear witness to the genuine community, not a single positive thought is paid to honor colonizers and the supposed creators of this “holiday.” Black people, a demographic also affected by the savagery of colonialism, have used Thanksgiving as opportunities to celebrate communion, togetherness, and bonds that aren’t as readily accessible as they are needed.
Here are 4 reasons Black folks come together on Thanksgiving that have nothing to do with celebrating colonialism and indigenous genocide:
1. We need to decolonize our palettes
As someone who is stuck on a semi-secluded college campus with no ability to cook the food of my ancestors (sorry Mom and Dad), I am constantly consuming what I call “wonderbread foods.” When I trek back up to Cornell’s campus for the school year, gone are the evening dinners of garri and egusi soup. I take my last spoonful of Jollof Rice and prepare myself for all the “wonderbread” Cornell has to offer me. French fries. Burgers. Assortments of chicken with assortments of a grain (usually underdone rice or potatoes better suited for underground). Predominantly white institutions produce routinized, bland menus, food that dampers my appetite and my food-soul connection. While my meal options have drastically improved since moving into a house with a Black chef, there are foods from home that can’t be replicated here, that shouldn’t be replicated here. I don’t want my favorite dishes tainted by the stress and caucasity of Cornell. Similar to my peers who go home for their grandmother’s famed sweet potato pie or their uncle’s first-come-first-serve mac and cheese, Thanksgiving is about giving our tastebuds the redemption they need. I deep clean away any tastes leftover from a very al dente pasta I consumed and make room for food that isn’t just there to pass the time.
2. We need community
It is hard to be Black. I love our culture, our beauty, all the amazing things we have and continue to achieve that punctuate our history. However, to be Black is to continually encounter white supremacy and its entanglement with structures like gender, sexuality, ability, and more. Being Black means mourning our community’s high mortality rates. It means watching our community being slaughtered by law enforcement, regardless of what we do or don’t. With grief lining our everyday experiences, Black people need days like Thanksgiving.
We as Black people seek out Thanksgiving as a chance to celebrate our chosen communities. We eat, drink, and celebrate life against the backdrop of so much death. Considering how often we are threatened, considering how often our bodies, minds, and spirits are under attack, we need strong communities to lean on. Particularly for women, queer folx, and other further marginalized people in the Black community, opportunities to celebrate ourselves and each other are critical to our well-being and happiness.
3. Thanksgiving gives us a chance to give back
During Thanksgiving, as we reflect on all we have to be thankful for, it is also hard to forget those who are still struggling. As you sit down for a bountiful family meal, your mind drifts to those left hungry. Being received warmly at the door by family makes me wonder who will be alone tonight (and alone tomorrow). The fact that I have a home to go to for celebrations is a stark reminder of who will lack shelter again. Thanksgiving gives Black people the opportunity to be of service, to find ways to spread the joy we feel as we give thanks and break bread. On Thanksgiving, my family will deliver food to elders in our community, many of whom will be alone. I have friends who use the holiday to serve at food banks, ensuring that Thanksgiving is not another opportunity for non-white people to suffer—especially given its origins. As Black people, generosity and forgiveness aren’t just traits we try to embody, but a cultural phenomenon we actively practice. Thanksgiving provides us with an additional opportunity to live out that truth. Thanksgiving is another opportunity for us to live that truth.
4. Time and space to be with elders
Another opportunity on this day is to be with family who aren’t immediately available. As someone in college, I rarely get to see my immediate family, much less aunts and uncles. For those who work far from their family home, that separation from family is also common. It can be painful, especially given the chaos of the everyday. Thanksgiving provides that moment of stability where those who have left the home, for whatever reason, can come together once more. Elders with younger generations, parents with their siblings. These and other reunions are what make our Thanksgiving so special; it is an opportunity to engage in the comfort of others, those who probably miss us just as much.
Is the origin of Thanksgiving horrible? Yes. Is the way it is usurped and used to promote Black Friday a degradation of the reflective action? Yes. However, these truths about Thanksgiving only makes the ways Black people celebrate the day more revered. Our traditions and usage of this holiday to celebrate food, community, service, and family are beautiful and significant. Our customs are ones of love, an experience European, colonizing murderers would know nothing about.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.