Robert F. Jakubowicz: When 'traditions' are myths and bigotry

Thursday November 22, 2012


‘It’s not a traditional America anymore," la mented Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly after the reelection of President Obama. What traditional America was O’Reilly talking about?

Traditions are customs, practices and beliefs handed down from one generation to the next. Did he mean the racist and anti-women traditions of the generation of our Founding Fathers at the time of the drafting and adoption of the Constitution in the 18th century? They were slave owners who perpetuated that tradition in the Constitution’s reference about others than free "free persons" (slaves) being counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning the districts among members of the House of Representative. These founders also constitutionally banned states from enacting laws that would make escaped slaves from other states free.

These racial practices morphed into a tradition of segregation in the 19th century. Meanwhile, the tradition of these founders of not allowing women to vote continued into the 19th century. One of the underlying points of these traditions was to ensure the power of propertied white males in America. These were traditions that needed to be changed and they were.


The ability of the people to make such changes in American traditions is one of the things that makes this country great. Although these traditions have been changed, their echoes were heard in the past presidential election.

State legislatures, controlled by Republicans and GOP governors and secretaries of states made serious attempts to suppress the votes of middle and lower class, non-white voters by curtailing voter registration times and voting hours as well as requiring problematic voter ID documents. Republican congressional leaders publicly vowed to prevent the reelection of America’s only non-white president. And Mitt Romney ran on a platform favoring the interests of the so-called 1 percent of predominantly white wealthy Americans.

Was O’Reilly lamenting the loss of the possibility of a return in some fashion to these early racist and anti-women traditions under a Romney presidency? Or perhaps O’Reilly was referring to the earlier traditions of the generation of Pilgrims in the 17th century who have also been referred to as the fathers of our country. One of their best known traditions is the celebration of Thanksgiving Day which brings me to the main point of this column.

The traditional story behind this celebration is so deep-rooted that it appears in dictionaries this holiday is defined as being "marked by religious observances and a traditional meal including a turkey" commemorating "a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621."

But James W. Loewen in his book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me -- Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," says that the "true history of Thanksgiving reveals embarrassing facts" about this story. It was not a day, according to Loewen, when the Pilgrims, who celebrated their taming of a wilderness, feasted with the needy, savage Native Americans they found there. It was the latter, who not only helped the Pilgrims to survive after they landed here, but shared one of their long-standing traditional feasts with the former. These Native Americans supplied the food which was indigenous to America that is now part of the Thanksgiving Day tradition, corn, squash, pumpkins and the like.

Thanksgiving celebrations were not something that were started by the Pilgrim in 1621. Such events were observed, according to historians, all over the world and by the Native Americans in southeastern Massachusetts at various times, long before the Pilgrims landed there. They were held to give thanks for such things as good crops, good weather, a war victory and the like. In America, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day as a holiday in 1863 during the Civil War reportedly to boost the moral and patriotism of the Union. The Pilgrims were not made a part of the celebration until 1890.

But what is troubling about this myth to Loewen, today’s Native Americans, who refer to this celebration now as a "Day of Mourning," and an increasing number of other Americans is the storyline for the holiday. It is a narrative of civilized, God-fearing and God-favored Pilgrims, in their Sunday best clothes, sharing their food with needy, almost naked, heathen, and inferior savages in an effort to help them.

Loewen points out that this not only marginalizes Native Americans, but that it is a story that tends to make Americans ethnocentric. In other words, with God on the side of the founders of this country, we are God’s nation and superior to other nations and cultures.

This makes us an exceptional and superior country. We have been an exceptional nation with what we have accomplished. But, it is the judging of other nations and cultures according to our standards and traditions in our foreign policy that has caused trouble for our country.


The point is that the traditional story of the Pilgrims as part of this holiday should be considered for what it factually was. It was a small part of a sad story of our early colonists through disease and warfare practically annihilating the Native Americans who were self-sufficient, helpful and thoughtful people.

According to Loewen, a correct understanding of the era surrounding this story of the so-called first Thanksgiving in this country "could help Americans grow more thoughtful and more tolerant, rather than more ethnocentric."

Robert F. Jakubowicz is a regular Eagle contributor.


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