This is a strange year, even an awful one, to celebrate Thanksgiving. A grand jury’s refusal to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson has crystallized ugly truths. Many Americans feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods, not despite law enforcement but because of it. In some places, the police act like an occupying force. If the law does not represent you but only governs you, you are a subject, not a citizen.
So what are the “blessings” that Americans should “gratefully acknowledge,” as Abraham Lincoln put it in the 1863 proclamation creating the first national Thanksgiving? That you are one of the lucky first-class citizens who feel safe wherever you go and expect polite help from the police and other authorities? Or, if you aren’t so lucky, that things aren’t worse? That you’re still walking around? Taking satisfaction in national blessings feels grotesque just now.
This November, I’m remembering a mostly forgotten American tradition that lies behind Thanksgiving’s cheery feasting and mutual congratulation. In 1776, the Continental Congress announced “a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” a day of acknowledging “manifold sins and transgressions” and seeking “sincere repentance and amendment of life.” Such fasting days were fixtures of the founders’ civic culture. Prayer, repentance, and thanksgiving were woven together in the national holidays that George Washington and other early presidents announced.
Yes, remembering national wrongs and seeking “amendment of life” seem better now than just being grateful. But even that 1776 proclamation contains the seeds of today’s troubles. It warned that the British were trying to reduce Americans to “ignominious bondage” with the help of “the savages of the wilderness, and our own domestics”—that is, slaves. The prayer and repentance of 1776 were ways of seeking God’s help in building a white man’s colony, an empire of liberty pitched on the backs of unfree labor and land cleared with violence.
Ferguson arises from conditions—black poverty, mutual racial distrust, a tradition of policing by and for white people—that are the direct legacy of Jim Crow. Segregation, in turn, was the direct legacy of the slavery that many of the founders practiced and prayed for help in defending. The same words from 1776 contain a spirit of searching reflection and a steadfast willingness to protect what later generations would learn to call white privilege.
In 1808, preaching in Philadelphia, a former slave named Absalom Jones urged a national day of thanksgiving 55 years ahead of Abraham Lincoln. Jones’s date was not a harvest festival but January 1, the dead of winter. Why? January 1, 1808, was the day that Congress banned the import of slaves. (The Constitution protected the slave trade until 1808, a time-limited compromise that the founders made iron-clad by immunizing it from amendment.) On that day of remembrance, Jones said, “the history of the sufferings of our brethren” should survive down “to the remotest generations.” Absalom Jones’s Thanksgiving is more help this November than Abraham Lincoln’s or the founders’.
The root of thanks ties the word to think and thought: at its base it means “to hold in mind.” Gratitude is a kind of remembrance, an act of holding in mind, and so is meditating on an unjust past that remains terribly present.
Lincoln praised “fruitful fields and healthful skies” in creating Thanksgiving. He also warned just 18 months later, in his second inaugural address, that after centuries of slavery, “every drop of blood of drawn with the lash” might be repaid with the sword before the country knew peace.
In a better Thanksgiving, we would try to hold both these thoughts at once, the call to gratitude and the call to justice. No doubt this is hard for everyone, and for different reasons. For some, racial inequality and fear are raw realities every day, and anything inspiring in American history rings false and remote. For others, the call to reflect on injustice feels like a personal accusation. But we are caught in this history together.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation called for thanks “with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.” He did not say that, for those words to be more than hypocrisy or obtuseness, Americans needed to build a country where one voice could be possible. But he knew that they did. And still do.