Maya Abdoussala’s Thanksgiving

Photos by Maya Abdoussala. 

This year marks my fourth Thanksgiving since coming to America.

I am still sitting on the fence when it comes to how I feel about this holiday.

Thanksgiving reminds me of the arguments people make about separating a great work of art from the highly flawed artist who produced it. Think, when R. Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ comes on and you have to physically clamp your lips shut so you don’t belt out the lyrics. Or how can you possibly admire Picasso’s ‘The Weeping Woman’ without abhorring the misogynistic contempt behind each brush stroke?

Similarly, I wonder about this beloved day of feast and family, and how—or if—we can separate it from its origins.

Thanksgiving seems so congenial—as many American traditions do. The week leading up to Thanksgiving demands an abundance of things—Did you get any apples for the pie? Where’s the extra platter for the ham?—never mind inflation.

We double-check—triple-check—to make sure that everyone who said they would come still plans on doing so. We ensure that the table is set in shades of brown, orange and yellow, with shining, new cutlery that appears out of thin air—It was in storage under the table.

My aunt is as efficient as a one-woman army. Not because we refuse to help, but because having raised two boys on her own, she’s gotten so used to being a solo chef that the kitchen has become an autocracy.

She bustles around the night before the holiday, basting the chicken every thirty minutes, stirring some collard greens and making sure the lasagna doesn’t overcook. It is not without subtle disdain that she makes a fig pie—green bananas that are boiled, mashed and mixed with salted cod and vegetables—with non-dairy cheese for those of us who can’t handle our milk.

There’s remarkable joy in seeing my cousins, who drive over from New Jersey, and hearing the chatter that fills the kitchen as the table disappears under a sea of dishes and plates with food—couscous, fig pie, sorrel juice and steamed vegetables.

The grace is meagre, acceptable at best, muttered as cousins are already serving themselves. Amid the chaos, hands reach across the table to pies even before the main course is finished.

I reflect on life in the Caribbean and think to myself, ‘We only eat like this at Christmas.’

So Thanksgiving, to me, only made sense in light of Christmas—another time of year to get together and enjoy the satisfaction of homemade food. Another time of year to celebrate—what, exactly?

So I dutifully spoon mounds of everything into my mouth with one hand. But, as the other hand scrolls through the endless posts of my Instagram feed, something else stands out.

“The National Day of Mourning”

These words begin a series of graphics in a carousel post on the annual demonstration organized by the United American Indians of New England to “honor Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience,” as well as the millions who died. It challenges my shallow understanding of the holiday and reflects Thanksgiving in a completely different light.

Amidst the chatter, the clinking of forks against ceramic and the insufferable sound of smacking lips and tongue (there’s always that one person), I remain unsettled and unsure of this tradition and its origins. The Internet itself provides so many conflicting angles—a lot about the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag people and whether the initial feast actually involved any turkey.

What’s certain, is the history of colonialism, violence and the annihilation of much of Indigenous American life, buried under the surface of a communal holiday. The grand Macy’s parade, the allure of calorically-dense foods and the warmth of family—are they all a mere mirage obscuring an arguably sinister moment in time?

Our gathering almost becomes irreverent, given my insight.

Around the table, no one else seems to be preoccupied with anything more than the abundance of food before them, touchy subjects that should remain untouched and how we should invite more people next year.

Should we choose to keep the sad history of Native Americans in the past and freely indulge (with gratitude) in the traditions of today?

It is Thanksgiving after all.