History and Hope: Collective Memory, Group Identity, and the First Thanksgiving

By: Nicholas Rowe

November 17, 2021

Who Belongs at the Thanksgiving Table? Christianity, History, and Immigration

I congratulate Dr. Matthew Rowley on his essay, which takes on a well-engaged subject: not the First Thanksgiving of 1621 per se, but its place in American memory and its deployment alongside the ideas of immigration and belonging. He also shows how this event enters the historical imaginations of various U.S. sub-groups and how its meaning gets changed over time.

As a scholar trained in history and peace studies, collective memory—that is, how groups engage and articulate their past—is essential in my work. Memory is not history. Memory refers to the stories and assumptions about the past that illustrate the holders’ priorities. The makers and retainers of memory hold fast to their narratives since it is often the foundation of collective identity. Challenging it can be an existential threat to being and belonging. History tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action and thus is more secular than memory. For the reasons I mentioned above, memory “is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community.” These lieux de mémoire are also sacred: events, places, monuments, statues.

The makers and retainers of memory hold fast to their narratives since it is often the foundation of collective identity. Challenging it can be an existential threat to being and belonging.

Historians, on the other hand, construct narratives of the past based on a critical examination of evidence. Historians may have a consensus on things, but that consensus can be subject to revision if new evidence emerges. History takes the context of events very seriously, with all the complexities it brings. The context of the actual event is just as important to know as its deployment in memory. Because of that, we see that the memory can take an event “out of context.” 

With this in mind, the dominant collective memory of Thanksgiving serves specific purposes for the white cultural context. Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ famous 1912 painting representatively illustrates this collective memory of the first Thanksgiving. It emphasized the celebration of a successful harvest as indication of the future survival of English immigrants. It also shows the hope of coexistence with their Wampanoag hosts. However, this romantic portrait conveniently did not elaborate the historical context of the fragile vulnerability of both parties. The immigrant community lost half their number, while the Indigenous community was reeling from an infection-related mass fatality incident, probably introduced by earlier European visitors. And, of course, there are no hints of the costly Indigenous-settler conflicts to come. 

The removal of context also served another purpose. Once again, Thomas Nast’s 1869 woodcut from the Harper’s Weekly magazine invokes the Thanksgiving meal as an exercise in hope, redeeming the disappointments of the American experiment to that point. In his imagination, a white Uncle Sam presides over a table under the male white male trinitarian presence of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant on the walls, with the white female trinitarian presence of Ladies Columbia, Liberty, and Justice. He beckons Asian, Black, and Native American guests, along with marginalized European immigrants, with the invitation to “Come one, Come all.” It represented the optimistic Radical Republican ideal freshly attained in the wake of the American Civil War. It is a reimagining of the first Thanksgiving to shape memory of the ultimate white hope—a reality framed according to the ideals of white Americans becoming universal for all humankind.

It is a reimagining of the first Thanksgiving to shape memory of the ultimate white hope—a reality framed according to the ideals of white Americans becoming universal for all humankind.

But again, the hope is betrayed by the realities of history. George Frederick Keller, an illustrator for the San Francisco Wasp, spoofs Nash’s optimism by portraying the Thanksgiving meal as a nightmare. To Keller and his readers, the attempt to bring all people to the table is a fool’s errand. The guests reject the traditional American Thanksgiving meal in favor of the foods thought to be their preference (with stereotypical racist overtones). An annoyed Columbia sulks in the kitchen, realizing no guest is interested in what she has prepared. The symbolic American Thanksgiving fare, the turkey, is presented on a platter by a Black waiter. It is still alive, for raw consumption by a decivilized Uncle Sam reduced to the level of the barbarian outsiders invited to the table. Again, the context here is everything. Nash’s vision comes in the wake of the optimism of Radical Republicanism. But Keller’s nightmare appears in a western publication when the U.S. West roiled in anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by a significant anti-Asian (and more specifically, anti-Chinese) animus. Hence, consistent with the contemporary rules limiting Chinese immigration, there were no women and children as guests in his vision.

By bending the metaphor of the Thanksgiving table, we can show another use of memory as a foundational aspect of group identity formation and protection. In this role, memory is like being invited to dine at the table hosted by the past. The turkey, sweet potatoes, and macaroni and cheese represent the desired parts of the past—the accomplishments and other events that boost group pride. But there are also the vegetables and other undesirable foods which we might not want to eat because we don’t like their taste. These are the things that historical evidence uncovers but that memory does not want to retain: conflicts with Indigenous groups, the enslavement of Africans and other unresolved racial disputes, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Should the vegetables be sufficiently repulsive, we may skip the main course altogether and jump straight to the comforting dessert of Nash’s portrait or that idyllic image of the original Thanksgiving meal.

Right now, the debate in the United States about its history is really about its official memory. Marginal voices tell those who have historically determined the cultural menu to eat their vegetables, and the latter do not like it. 

Memory’s selectivity reinforces a group’s self-image, making it look good, better, more powerful, more advanced, and more civilized than competing groups in proximity. And if a group must engage disturbing historical realities, memory empowers the group to take it on its own terms. It constantly wants to ignore parts of the menu because the taste of guilt, shame, and vulnerability are too much to bear. At some point, memory jumps up from its position as a guest at the table of the past and tries to shove history aside to redo the menu because memory is not just about identity but also power. The group in power seeks to set the menu. Right now, the debate in the United States about its history is really about its official memory. Marginal voices tell those who have historically determined the cultural menu to eat their vegetables, and the latter do not like it. This is not just an American development, by the way; the historical record contains numerous examples of this dynamic. South Africa, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Quebec, and Northern Ireland, among other places, have all had their crises of memory.

A final word on this. As much as memory can be problematic, we are disposed to memory. It is very human to deploy it to preserve our group identities. However, in Christian practice, when this disposition appears in the community of believers, we must subject it to discipleship practices like all of our other propensities. To cite David Blight, “history might be interpreted, but memory is owned.” We use it to define ourselves and groups, define who belongs and who does not, and promote self-sufficiency and self-affirmation. According to scripture, however, the Body of Christ finds its definition by identification with and submission to the Creator and Redeemer who brings all things under His feet. Part of that submission is to admit our need for a redeemer, recognize our vulnerability and weakness, and confess that we are not self-sufficient. 

When any human group attempts to craft a reality employing its norms as the standard, it will eventually fail. No human being, let alone a collective group, has the divine imagination and the beneficent ability to make it work. It will always depend upon its power and control, and the fear of losing it will eventually harm the guests. We can never create security and shalom by taking control. Only the Creator can do this. And so, for believers, the natural impulse of memory for self-preservation cannot coexist with God’s provision for our salvation. One must choose. In contrast to Nast’s metaphorical illustration, which proved unsustainable, Christ is the host of the table, and, to cite the famous plainsong

He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
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