Amy Roberts: Repeating history
Earlier this summer, when streets across the country were filled with protesters demanding racial justice, numerous statues and monuments that commemorated slave owners and other historical figures like Christopher Columbus, whom most of us grew up believing discovered America, were toppled. Some came down destructively, others preemptively by city and state governments. While the removal of the statues was sometimes lost in the surrounding noise about the protests, the election and the pandemic, it did generate some thoughtful discussion about how and who we memorialize in the name of history and the false narrative the majority of us have been fed since kindergarten.
I’m not sure if kids are still taught to recite the famous poem written to commemorate Christopher Columbus, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” But I remember doing so as a young child and being led to believe he was a hero rather than a rapist, torturer, enslaver and mass murderer. I was never taught the violence he and his followers unleashed and that the diseases they transmitted resulted in the virtual annihilation of Native Americans in the Caribbean. Granted, those details would have been too gruesome to share with a child, but the “hero” part could certainly have been downplayed. And even in my college courses covering American history, facts like this were scant and homage was still paid.
We still tend to gloss over the truth in our efforts to glorify the past, or eliminate details that make retelling it awkward. But accurate accounts of history are often the examples we need to either avoid repeating it when necessary, or purposefully replicating it when appropriate.
We have all been taught the first Thanksgiving was a special occasion when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered to celebrate the end of a successful harvest and share food. That’s mostly true, though calling the attendees “pilgrims” tends to diminish the fact they were colonizers. The first feast took place in 1621 and while it’s not known if the tradition continued in subsequent years, by the end of the 17th century gathering to give thanks and celebrate the harvest had become an established ritual in New England.
But the significance of this annual event wasn’t really established until about 200 years later when Sarah Josepha Hale lobbied President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Hale, who had grown up in New Hampshire where Thanksgiving was regularly celebrated, was a prominent writer and editor best known for penning the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She felt the fall tradition should be celebrated across the country and believed a national day of gratitude could help bring together a nation divided by the Civil War.
She published editorials urging Americans to “put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving. While many states had adopted a state holiday, she was steadfast in her determination for a national declaration making Thanksgiving “permanently, an American custom and institution,” recognized every year on the last Thursday of November.
All of her lobbying and letter writing finally paid off in the fall of 1863 when President Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in hopes it would “heal the wounds of the nation.”
This year, we get to choose which version of history we want to repeat. We can either gather and spread a deadly disease to those with no immunity, or we can come together (metaphorically and virtually) in an effort to reconcile and unite a divide country. Both options are historically accurate. One will be a little less uncomfortable to share years from now.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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