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Thanksgiving celebration for Blacks leaves both warm, regrettable memories

Began as church-oriented festival

Merdies Hayes Managing Editor | 11/27/2019, 11:16 a.m.
African-Americans have strongly embraced..

African-Americans have strongly embraced Thanksgiving Day, even during slavery. At that time, those held in bondage took the time to be thankful for what they had which, of course, was not very much.

In 1777, when the Continental Congress delivered a decree for the 13 colonies to give thanks for reaching a victory over the British at Saratoga, the Africans also took part in the celebration throughout the region stretching from New England down to Georgia.

What is often forgotten, however, is that Thanksgiving began as a church-oriented celebration for the Black community. Black pastors then would often give sermons that could be heard loud and clear through the small Black churches. These sermons would be about struggles, hopes, fears and triumphs. The sermons usually grieved the institution of slavery; the suffering of Black people, and often pleaded for an awakening of a slave-free Americas that they believed would come soon.

Thanksgiving and Christian faith

Similar to the Puritan practice of setting aside time for fasting and giving thanks, for many African-Americans any notion of Thanksgiving existed alongside the Christian faith. There is an often-perceived conundrum of Black slaves in Colonial America giving thanks. This has encouraged historians to point to justification—and just maybe—validation which became more tangible after the U.S. Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves into America and its territories by January 1808.

The difficulty may lie in Blacks observing a tradition that mimics their specific plight of subjucation and bondage.

During the Colonial Period, field slaves observed Thanksgiving by catching and preparing wild game that was often accompanied by a serving of cornmeal, while house servants would dine on leftovers from the “big house” after slave-owners and their families finished their meal.

In 1876, for instance, roughly 13 years after President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday, African Methodist Episcopalian cleric Rev. Benjamin Arnett stirred a predominantly Black congregation with the following Biblically inspired words:

“...we call on all American citizens to love their country, and look not on the sins of the past, but arming ourselves for the conflict of the future, girding ourselves in the habiliments of Righteousness, march forth with the courage of a Numidian lion, and with the confidence of a Roman gladiator, and meet the demands of the age, and satisfy the duties of this hour.”

Confronting America’s ‘original sin’

But ceasing the importation and sale of African slaves in America did not end what is commonly referred to as the nation’s “original sin.” It continued for more than a half century later. That’s one reason why many free slaves migrated to Africa to the newly founded colony of Liberia. These persons took the tradition of Thanksgiving there, thanking God for their freedom and for the establishment of Liberia.

It may not be difficult to conjure a delightfully sublime mental picture of Africans—at last free from slavery and colonial plantation life—celebrating Thanksgiving in the equatorial heat of Liberia. Perhaps they ate yams and collard greens, or jollof rice and fufu (portions of cassava and green plantain flour drenched in hot water), with a pounded melon stew. Perhaps they danced to indigenous rhythms and sang hand-clapping, foot-stomping spirituals.