Reflection, Resistance, and the Art of Giving Thanks
Have your pie and eat it too.
So in recent weeks I’ve gotten a lot of flack for my political musings. Though I didn’t write about the election here on Hivster, this November and the seemingly endless months that preceded it were a source of long, drawn-out consternation for me. As the country tried to decide between the devil we don’t know and the devil we do I found myself over and over again reminding my friends that they are both the devil and we should probably just scrap this whole mess our forefathers got us in and make something new. As the election season progressed, I was devolving into apoplectic fits of internet shrieks and in-public denunciations replete with finger waving and a fair amount of screeching; one acquaintance, when I declared the election results (“Good news, everybody! Wall Street won again!”), entreated me to find some happiness in my life and relax.
I am One Angry Queer, after all.
Today probably isn’t any different, really. There is still, regardless of what holiday the government tells us today is, a lot to be angry about. Even today is a source of deep pain and anger for some. As we eat our turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread today, let’s be real; the first Thanksgiving was the beginning of something that millions had little to be thankful for. There are still many who will wake up today and agree that they have very little which inspires them to give thanks.
I can’t deny, however, that today doesn’t inspire me to more than my usual rancor. Like most white Americans, I have grown up socialized to a custom where we wake up on this day and reflect on the things which we are thankful for. We talk a lot about gratitude and freedom today, but we need to at times realize what our freedoms (such as they are) were bought with. I could rail about the bloody history of this holiday and its history of rape and genocide. I could rail about the homeless that have woken up in alleys today, shivering and hungry. I could also talk about the things I’m grateful for. I could even talk about what we need to do next to create a world we SHOULD be grateful for.
Oh hell. Let’s do all of the above.
Today, many Americans do in fact have a lot to be grateful for. We live in the richest country in the world, and though there are a terrifying number of households that are food insecure in the United States, if you are an American, chances are you woke up today with the prospect of a large meal on your table by the end of the day.
This legacy of bounty, however, came at a cost. Today, as you dig into your various foodstuffs and hang out with your friends and family, we need to take a moment to remember the centuries of deprivation and death that are commemorated by Thanksgiving. After all, there are many cultures that existed on these shores before the Pilgrims ever set foot on them that no longer exist. Between the murderous expansionist ideals of white Europeans and the diseases they brought with them, entire peoples were wiped out. The Native Americans, who we credit with feeding our ancestors upon our arrival, were paid for their generosity and goodwill with rape, destruction, and murder.
I remember, as a young elementary school student, that we learned about this holiday by dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians and eating cafeteria turkey. We didn’t learn that afterward the people who gave us a start in this country were paid with hatred and expulsion. We didn’t really touch on the fact that they probably should have given us the boot as soon as we sighted land.
We should remember that when we eat today. Many generations of indigenous people died so that we can glut ourselves on food raised on their stolen land. It would dishonor their death to forget that.
On charity and solidarity.
Not everyone reaps all the benefits of the exploitative actions of our ancestors. Today, many will still be homeless and still be hungry. Even though our country is the pinnacle of wealth and power on planet Earth, recent years have shown how plundering capitalists can ruin it for everyone. The income gap hasn’t closed, and even though we have about 7,000 less homeless in 2012 than in 2011, we still have enough people living on the streets to populate Portland, OR with some left over. Over 600,000 people today may find they have little to be thankful for.
As a queer person, this is particularly troubling. Though we are but a small fraction of the American population, a staggering number of the victims of this epidemic of homelessness are queer. Almost half of the youth on the streets, in fact, are queer identified. I wish I could say this was shocking, but with the incidence of rejection and intolerance our society offers queer young people I can’t say I’m surprised.
How do we fix this? Oftentimes, as Americans, we focus on quick fixes and short-term solutions. Instead of curing an ill we are happy to slap a band-aid on it then go on our merry way. Instead of figuring out long-term methods of dealing with the endemic of homelessness and the systematic, institutional injustices that feed it, we engage in feel-good behaviors that end up fixing nothing. We are far more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than actually address problems. In short, we love charity and lack in solidarity.
I’m not saying we don’t need soup kitchen volunteers; we do. But we can’t stop there. In order to make sure that people wake up on this day to give thanks, we have to address the root of homelessness and the cause of deprivation. Don’t just engage in charitable actions, but agitate against the system that makes charity necessary. You may have a home, but many do not. Engage in active resistance not just for those who go without, but with those who go without. Capitalism kills, and we can’t fight it actively by donating a blanket and then walking away. We must aggressively shatter the hold that big banks have on our country. We must lovingly address the problems of addiction and homophobia. We must speak out and in doing so help others realize that they have a voice, too.
If we give thanks today, we must ensure that all are able to give thanks. We must stand in solidarity with those in deprivation, and in doing so help to end what deprives them.
It’s not unreasonable, however, to be grateful for the things we have. Many of us are fairly privileged. I count myself as privileged, even though I have often led a life which some would view as unfortunate and unhappy.
I personally have a lot to be thankful for. I’m 30. Between war, HIV and addiction I probably shouldn’t have made it out of my 20s. I talk about homelessness not because I merely see homelessness on the street, but because I have spent Thanksgivings without a home to call my own. I’m fairly grateful that I have one this year.
In this land we call free, I’m grateful for what freedom I have not because I see folks who are not free but because incarceration and oppression have wrought grave consequences in my life. My brother’s life was given to the prison industrial complex, a pain I will bear forever. In the end, though he is dead, I suppose I am grateful he no longer experiences the despair of bars and a cell. I am especially grateful I have not experienced what he went through. I am most grateful I had a brother at all.
I am grateful for so much, and not in a “GIVE THANKS UNTO GOD BECAUSE HE DESERVES IT, GOLDURNIT” kind of way, because although I am no atheist, I’m pretty sure the good things in my life are enjoyed by me due to the efforts of others around me and hell, because I helped bring many of them about myself. My work and my life are rewarding. I am grateful. I hope you are too.
Gratitude and giving go hand in hand. I’m going to be celebrating, reflecting, and pigging out today with a lot of folks I truly love. I met most, if not all of them, through the activist scene. We have gotten pepper-sprayed together, we have danced together, yelled at cops together, and put on community events together. I am grateful for them, not just for the fact that they love me and I love them, but because we have given each other far more than thanks. I am grateful not just for the blessings that they have bestowed upon me but because they have given me the opportunity to give to them in return.
I encourage everyone around me to do the same. The list of injustices we must repair and rectify are many in 2012. The people in charge would rather we stuff ourselves silly and stop there; they would prefer we picked up the scraps of their bounty and thanked God for it. Yes, I will thank those that provide the food I will gorge on today, but I will be even more grateful for those who have resisted those would take what meager scraps we have. Even more, I will be thankful by resisting, agitating, and yes, being angry.
It’s the least I can give.