Questioning Thanksgiving in Paris

When I am at home in California or New York, celebrating Thanksgiving is something I do out of habit. I don’t really ask myself why I celebrate it.

But after going to an American-import grocery store and hauling cans of cranberry sauce and cornbread mix back to my apartment across town…I definitely questioned why my friends and I decided to organize a Thanksgiving dinner in Paris.

Mostly, I think it was the product of some good, old-fashioned nostalgia and homesickness. There is a sense of solidarity that comes from ‘being American together’ in a foreign land, and what better way to express that than by stuffing ourselves to the brink of a food-coma? I have to say, when I saw other people on the métro carrying platters of food on Thursday evening, I assumed they were American and felt like a member of a secret society. (Do not worry, I did not wink at anyone.)

That might be enough of an explanation – some shared drinks to celebrate our success as strangers in a strange land, cobbling together papers in French all semester – but…it’s not. As much as we wish, it can’t be.

The thing is that, in elementary or middle school, most of us in the US were taught that Thanksgiving is a day to commemorate a dinner that the first colonial settlers shared with the Native Americans. They were grateful for the natives’ help in growing the first harvest, and so Thanksgiving is a day for us to reflect on what we are grateful for.

However, we also picked up the truth of the matter somewhere along the way – that commemorating Thanksgiving also means commemorating the beginning of a long history of genocide and oppression of Native Americans in order to make room for the foundation and continuing growth of the United States.

At our Thanksgiving table, we talked about this briefly, just as we talked about how it was a little bit strange to be celebrating America while the Ferguson protests are going on. We are good liberal-arts students, and we know the history. But we still had Thanksgiving…so, what does that mean?

Most simply, it means that we are privileged. While some Native Americans today mark Thanksgiving as a day of mourning, we are able to reflect on this history without feeling its sadness in our bones. Speaking for our dinner table, at least as far as I know, neither our ancestors nor our current families are affected by this particular thread of oppression that runs through United States history.

We talked about that, too. While an awareness of privilege is a good start, the hard part is knowing where to go from there.

Are there better ways for us to bond as American students in Paris? Are there better ways for us to celebrate American-ness and gratitude, when we get back to the United States and face this question again next November? How much do we owe to tradition, if anything? How can we be better allies to Native American populations in the US who are still resisting oppressions?

I won’t claim to have answers, but I guess I have close to a year to think about the questions before next Thanksgiving. For now, all I can say is that I am very grateful for every second in Paris.

Daniela Lapidous, Columbia College