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The Africanization of Thanksgiving

William Covington | 11/21/2012, 5 p.m.

Millions of families will come together today and celebrate their bounty by reflecting on God, family and good will. African Americans have a special historical connection to Thanksgiving that is often overshadowed by other iconic figures that have become more closely associated with the holiday, such as the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, Native Americans, the turkey and the cornucopia (horn of plenty).
President Abraham Lincoln, who instituted the holiday in 1863, also wrote and delivered the Emancipation Proclamation that same year.
Author Sarah Josepha Hale is called the godmother of Thanksgiving because for 40 years she wrote and lobbied five presidents and congressmen to establish it as a national holiday. Hale, who is probably best remembered as the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," also wrote the novel "Northwood; or Life North and South," which argued for the virtue of the North against the evil slave owners of the South. One of the chapters in her book discussed the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
While Hale opposed slavery, she did not support the abolitionists. She was skeptical of complete emancipation, because she did not expect that Whites would ever treat the former slaves fairly, and in 1853 published "Liberia," which proposed repatriation of slaves to Africa.
Thanksgiving, as proposed by Lincoln, was supposed to bring the nation together in the midst of the Civil War, just as it tends to unite family today. In the Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln specified that the last Thursday of each November should be set aside as a day to give thanks for the founding of our nation.
On Dec. 26, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill into law making Thanksgiving a national holiday and setting it on the fourth, not final the Thursday in November. Some economists believe that Roosevelt's decision allowed an extra week after Thanksgiving to help bolster retail sales prior to the Christmas holiday.
Fred Lazarus Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy's), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to make the switch.
In American pop culture, the Thanksgiving holiday and items associated with the holiday have appeared in music and film. The most memorable may have been Plymouth Rock, the alleged location of disembarkation of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims. It is first referenced by American composer and songwriter Cole Porter, who makes a comic allusion to Plymouth Rock in the title song of the 1934 musical "Anything Goes," imagining that if Puritans were to object to shocking modern mores, instead of landing on "Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them."
Malcolm X repeated the imagery in a speech on Black nationalism, saying in a memorable line from the Spike Lee movie "Malcolm X": "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us."
Plymouth Rock has figured prominently in Native American politics in the United States, particularly as a symbol of the wars waged soon after the Pilgrims' landing. It has been ceremoniously buried twice by Native American rights activists, once in 1970 and again in 1995, as part of National Day of Mourning protests.
Dictionaries define Thanksgiving as "the expression of gratitude, especially to God" as the primary definition, and references the holiday as a secondary definition. When researching old African slave documentation and information available on the Internet such as the "Slave Narratives," we find them paying homage to God as opposed to describing or mentioning the Thanksgiving holiday, which had been celebrated at different times of the year since 1621.
According to Mitch Kachun, author of "Festivals of Freedom Meaning and Memory in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915," the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818), an abolitionist, clergyman is author of the first known document (a sermon) by an African American mentioning Thanksgiving as a day. In 1804, he was the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States.
Jones preached his Thanksgiving sermon on Jan. 1, 1808, the date upon which the United States outlawed importation of foreign slaves. The holiday became one of the central anti-slavery celebrations among free Black communities in the antebellum North, according to William B. Gravely, in "The Dialectic of Black Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 1808-1863."
A portion of Jones's sermon, "Publick Thanksgiving Day," reads: "Fifthly, and lastly, let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy. Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend by this means to our children, to the remotest generations; and when they shall ask, in time to come, saying, What mean the lessons, the psalms, the prayers and the praises in the worship of this day? Let us answer them, by saying, the Lord, on the day of which this is the anniversary, abolished the trade which dragged your fathers from their native country, and sold them as bondmen and sold them in the United States of America."
Kachun writes that well before the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the reading of the sermon, "Publick Thanksgiving Day," African American slave celebrations, which were days set aside solely for African American slaves, existed sporadically well into the 19th century. These slave holidays were known as Negro Election Day, Militia Training Day and Pinkster (Pentecost) festivals. In these public celebratory rituals, enslaved African Americans fused European and African traditions of political and festive culture and adapted them to best suit the slave's situation. Christmas was also celebrated by slaves, with the approval of their masters, and most slaves discovered that the Lord's birthday was a great day to escape."
The University of Chapel Hill African Studies Department produced a series of documentaries titled "Documenting the South." In one of the episodes, academicians explain how Christmas allowed African slaves to take advantage of the relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders (their masters), who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children, and family who were owned by different masters and who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time. Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their masters' expectation that they would soon return from their family visit.
During Negro Election Day slaves were given the day off by their owners and joined with free Blacks for parades, athletic contests, dances and dinners. Freedmen paid for parts of the celebration, as did slaves, who often earned their own money in their spare time. Strangely, slave owners contributed as well, making sure their slaves were dressed in good clothing. If their slaves looked bad, it reflected poorly on them.
Negro Election Days were held throughout New England, in both large cities and smaller towns. The Black communities would elect an official called a king, sheriff or governor, who rode through town after his election wearing a crown or sash and mounted on a horse. Although he was not legally recognized, this official often served as a liaison between the Blacks and Whites in his area and ensured that the law was upheld. Sometimes, though, the king was elected simply as a way to mock White leaders and served more as a Lord of Misrule, presiding over the day's festivities.
Militia Training Day is documented in The Outlook Dispatch newspaper in 1894 as a New England African American slave festival taking place during post-revolution era.
Pinkster Day, according to May 7, 2010, article in the New York Times took place in spring in 18th-century New York. Dutch colonists and their African slaves discarded their roles for a few days to observe a cross-cultural holiday. Their slaves were granted a rare break from work and the opportunity to travel to New York City to reunite with family and participate in festivities there. By the early 1800s, the celebration had incorporated so much African culture that it was considered an African American holiday.
These slave holidays and festivals disappeared with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation when slaves no longer needed days off. The African American church replaced these Negro celebratory days with sermons of worship and strategies geared toward improving African American rights.
In the African American home during Thanksgiving, the dinner table is usually the focal point, decorated with whatever tableware and family dining heirlooms the family possesses. There is a good chance the meal will consist of the requisite turkey, dressing, ham, candied yams, baked macaroni and cheese, greens and sweet potato pie, among other delicacies.
The Thanksgiving dinner is usually accompanied by a good, long spiritual blessing of the dinner table, with young ones smiling at desserts, good eating and plenty of laughter. Home-cooked soul food dishes are usually prepared by the matriarch of the family, or by aunts, sisters and daughters following the matriarch's directions. These dishes have been the embodiment of traditional African American holiday cuisine for years.
Although a former slave from Tennessee, Clayton Holbert, who was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936 remembered the festivals, Christmas and New Year's during his years as a slave, he said "we had no such thing as Thanksgiving, we had never heard of such . . . ."
It is very difficult to gauge the frequency of Thanksgiving celebrations or periods of rest related to the holiday based on different beliefs and practices of slaveholders.
There is a very good chance that the first African American Thanksgiving dinner was cooked in an outside kitchen and the diet consisted of corn meal, salt pork, and home-grown vegetables if, slave masters allowed it. The meal entrees would not have been a standard meal of the slave owner or anything similar, but more likely scraps from the master's table. Slaves often made soups and stews out of leftover food from the big house, and they were eaten as soon as possible due to lack of refrigeration. In the slave narratives, there are descriptions of how "massa would giv usen somtin special on holidays."
There is a very good chance the first African American Thanksgiving dinner was consumed mostly by individuals eating with their hands.
Leland Ferguson's book, "Struggling With Pots in Colonial South Carolina," describes 45 bowls found at an archeological dig on a former slave plantation. When the collection of whole vessels was examined by the food archeologists, it was determined that colonial slaves were not eating with tableware like their European masters, but like their African ancestors, with their hands. Only one bowl from the site showed evidence of cutlery marks indicating tableware impressions.
However, antique dealer and owner of Los Angeles-based Menyeas' Décor, Edward Kinney, believes that African slaves often constructed wooden spoons and wooden bowls. This was a craft that originated in Africa. Eating with a wooden bowl and wooden spoon, he says, would not have created impressions similar to a metal spoon scraping the wall of a wooden.
Kinney believes African Americans may have started using dishes and cutlery during the post-antebellum period.
There is a very good chance that at the first African American Thanksgiving dinners there were slaves with scarred backs of raised skin, a result of brutal discipline of the owner. There is a very good chance that at those first Thanksgiving dinners there was a little slave girl who had been violated. There is a very good chance that all individuals there had no control of their lives. But without question there is a very good chance that at those first African American Thanksgiving dinners the slaves held hands and prayed to God for better days.