What Happy Thanksgiving

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Malcolm X taught us that land is the material basis of all political and economic power for any people. When you take away someone’s land, you take away his or her entire source of livelihood and right to sovereignty. We must recognize we reside here at the expense of our Native American sisters and brothers.

[Commentary]

 

There’s nothing like one-o-them home cooked meals by Momma. 


Just the thought of extended family getting together and partaking in the bonding ritual of a feast, is enough to bring a nostalgic tear to the eye. 

And when something becomes a tradition it can be hard to break from, even if its roots prove to be decadent and warped. 


Even though many African people in the United States know not to recognize Columbus Day we have yet to renounce Thanksgiving and we neglect its true historical significance.  Who can deny that Columbus was nothing more than a colonial pirate who stumbled, lost and starving, onto the shores of this continent? He would have certainly perished if it weren’t for his indigenous rescuers, whom he repaid with plunder, pillage and enslavement.

We take comfort in knowing that he wasn't from Africa, and that the likes of him committed in essence the same assault on Africa. But doesn’t Thanksgiving have the same decadent origins?  How absurd is it for Black people/Africans to recognize Thanksgiving as anything other than a “celebration in the taking.”

In discussions about why African-"Americans" can honor this tradition of forgotten origins it is common to hear proclamations about how it has now become “a time for family and friends,” a “time to be thankful for the blessings in our lives.” After all, what purpose does it serve to dwell on the past? 


Someone murders a family and is demented enough to commemorate the atrocity, declaring it a thankful occasion. As years go by the offspring of the murderers—who have since all died—invite you to also give thanks on this occasion, while the survivors are never given the opportunity to have closure or redress. Everyone encourages them that this should now become a thankful time and for them to forgive and forget the historical truth behind the occasion.

 

Maybe we don’t realize that Thanksgiving is literally the celebration of a massacre of a whole people. This is shown as a 1623 Thanksgiving sermon in Plymouth Massachusetts “gave special thanks to God for the devastat¬ing plague of smallpox that destroy¬ed the majority of the Wampanoag Indians. He praised God for eliminating ‘chief¬ly young men and children, the very seeds of in¬crease, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth’." (Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Thanksgiving in America, November 1991) The smallpox was intentionally passed to the Wampanoag.


Maybe we aren’t primarily responsible for the theft of land or the genocide of indigenous people.  But to insinuate that what happened and is still happening to indigenous Americans is a relic of the past makes one an accomplice.


It's not in the past that our indigenous sisters and brothers are still oppressed, still having land taken from them, and still experiencing “Treaties” being broken. The standoff between the Shoshone in Nevada and the federal government over land rights is a good case in point. 

It’s not in some distant past that Native Americans are being subjected to all the symptoms of oppression: disease, homelessness, dilapidated and vermin-infested housing, substance abuse, inadequate education, unemployment, and police brutality. One of their freedom fighters, Leonard Peltier has languished in prison for nearly 30 years; framed by events provoked by an outward assault on Native people. 

If our history of slavery as African people and the continued racist contempt for us by the status quo still shows how far we have to go, then the settler-colonialist legacy and continued racist contempt for the fundamental human rights of America’s Indigenous people bears on the civic responsibilities of anyone who claims to be American.


We have no right to claim a land that is not ours no matter how much we worked and slaved to build it. This is especially true for those who do not incorporate support for Indigenous people into the struggle for their own rights.

Malcolm X taught us that land is the material basis of all political and economic power for any people. When you take away someone’s land, you take away his or her entire source of livelihood and right to sovereignty. We must recognize we reside here at the expense of our Native American sisters and brothers.


We even owe them a historical debt for often providing us with the only real refuge from slavery when some of us were able to escape. They have had their land stolen from them and we were stolen from our land. But if we are to stay and struggle here in America, then we should only do it in deference to them. We are obliged to speak out on their behalf on every platform, in every venue, at every opportunity before we ever make claims to this land.


I wonder how we would feel if the Boers of South Africa had proclaimed the Sharpeville Massacre as an event to celebrate with a “thanksgiving”?


“Doesn’t the fact that America is as great as it is due to contributions --involuntary and otherwise-- from African people mean we have earned a piece of the pie?”

But let’s say someone kidnaps you from your house. They take you to invade another person’s house, abusing that person and locking them in the closet. After kidnapping you from your home and invading this other house you are kept to serve your captor and help renovate this “new” house. Eventually they “grant” you freedom and allow you some nominal access to this new house.  But—whose house is it really?

When the issue of America being stolen land is brought into discussions about African-American claims to this nation, it is common to be reminded by the establishment in the following manner: “We weren’t the ones who stole it and the past is past and nothing can be done about it now.”

We know how these discussions go. We've engaged in countless numbers of them. In our attempts to rehabilitate the integrity of African people in America, we have had to go to great lengths and still have a long way to go.

We fought to institutionalize a Black History Month to counter the omission and misrepresentation of us in America’s history. We've researched and published about the multitude of scientific and technological contributions our great minds have given to this and other societies. We have won affirmative action legislation and many of us have ascended social, economic and political ladders to become sport and Hollywood celebrities, corporate CEOs, and mayors and congresspersons.

However, we don't feel that we have the same obligation that white people have to the dispossessed indigenous people of the Americas. Somehow our struggles have absolved us of all responsibility of making reparations for their plight.

But we gotta keep it real. Our “American” hands don’t seem so clean when we consider the history of some things we often regard with pride.  While it’s accepted that the Buffalo Soldiers did not participate in the massacres of Native Americans, they were still employed in “keeping the peace,” building forts on reservations, making sure Native Americans stayed in reservations, and protecting white settlements. How many of us proudly display portraits of the legacy of the Buffalo soldiers in our homes or workplaces?

 

At the height of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, Americans had the audacity to claim a higher moral ground than the apartheid government. Even many Africans in America spoke out loudly of how backward South Africa was and how the US government and US corporations doing business with there should realize the disrespect to all people of African descent. 

We even compared it to the Jim Crow laws we were subjected to in America and presented these as an ugly past. We saw and see America as having moved beyond practices like South Africa’s apartheid system.

As Jesse Jackson put it at the Democratic National Convention, in San Francisco, on July 18, 1984: “From Fannie Lou Hamer in Atlantic City in 1964 to the Rainbow Coalition in San Francisco today; from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we have experienced pain but progress as we ended America's apartheid laws.”

But how could this be? It isn't even a perfect analogy. We are not indigenous to this land and are more equivalent in status to the so-called “coloreds” in South Africa. Our struggle and claims did not speak to the nature of settler-colonialism. We conveniently overlook the real analogy there, the real disgraceful similarities between the US and South Africa.  America makes a mockery of the meaning of democracy. Truth be told, South Africa has statutorily abolished apartheid even before America has.

With Native Americans still statutorily being deprived of their human rights, there should be no surprise why America gives so much support to the settler-colonial state of Israel. They are no different. They sympathize with Israeli settlers over the natural land rights of the indigenous Palestinians. 

Maybe the reason why Black people in this country don't want to give all due respect to the Native Americans is because they are afraid it might in theory mean moving back to Africa.  The comforts some of us have come to associate with America just aren't home in Africa, although, some of us here in America still suffer so much that we honestly wouldn't see much difference between our state of underdevelopment in Africa versus that in America. 

 

If anything, our mutual oppression should mean a natural alliance between us and our Indigenous sisters and brothers. An alliance, that we would be unjust to pay only lip service. We need to say loudly to them that Africa, not America remains our only legitimate homeland.


About the author:  Netfa Freeman is currently the director of the Social Action & Leadership School for Activists at the Institute for Policy Studies. Mr. Freeman is a longtime activist in the Pan-African and international human rights movements.  Netfa is also a co-producer/co-host for Voices With Vision, WPFW 89.3 FM, Washington DC. He can be reached at netfa@hotsalsa.org.


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