by Jean Roberta
This post is partly about synchronicity: events or items that appear close together, apparently at random, but which form patterns.
Yesterday, a venerable local restaurant, The Diplomat, put on an American Thanksgiving Day feast of butternut squash soup, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and pumpkin pie. This was a new thing for the restaurant, which has been a downtown landmark for many years in the prairie town of Regina, home of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and capital of the province of Saskatchewan.
Of course, Canadians don’t get a day off for American Thanksgiving. We had ours on a Monday in October.
My spouse Mirtha and I made reservations and went to the Diplomat, a dimly-lit space decorated with oil portraits of diplomats on the walls. Since my American parents passed away in 2009, Mirtha and I have both missed my mother’s American Thanksgiving family suppers, which sometimes alternated with American thanksgiving in the home of some other expatriate faculty members at the local university. My family moved north in the 1960s, as part of a mini-exodus of intellectuals during the Vietnam War era. In the fifty years since then, nearly all the academics of my parents’ generation that I knew in my youth have passed away. (One notable exception, my father’s old colleague in the Economics Department, celebrated a book launch and his 100th birthday on the same day as the feast at the Diplomat.)
So Mirtha (who is Chilean-born) and I went to the restaurant for a “family” style turkey supper. I felt nostalgic for the Thanksgivings of my childhood in Idaho. Mirtha felt nostalgic for my mother’s Thanksgiving suppers, which she attended as a guest for twenty years.
We both know that the first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was a celebration (giving thanks to a Protestant God) for a victory of white settlers over the “Indians.” It had been a slaughter.
It troubles my conscience that this has become such a characteristic American holiday. I prefer to think of Thanksgiving the way Mirtha seems to, as a simple occasion for good food and (if possible) good company.
We would have liked the companionship of some close friends or relatives, but neither of us missed my father’s rants about how much better everything was in the U.S. in the good old days before troublemakers began demanding social and legal equality for all human adults. At family get-togethers, he usually held forth on a subject dear to the heart of every American conservative: the supposed compatibility of “democracy” with extreme disparities of income, of experience, and of status. According to this logic, “democracy” requires recognition of the inherent inequality of different groups of people, and the necessity of allowing the fittest to survive at the expense of the rest.
I’ve never actually heard a conservative claim that slavery was a democratic institution, but I’ve heard it implied. And I’ve been told that the drastic racial segregation formerly enforced by “Jim Crow” laws was necessary at the time, and would help keep the peace now.
This week, I got the latest issue of BBC History magazine, to which I subscribe. It includes two short articles under the title “Why are America’s white supremacists on the march again?” A woman historian, Manisha Sinha, briefly summed up the history of American racism since the U.S. Civil War, which resulted in the end of slavery. By upper-class southern standards, the uncompensated loss of slaves was an enormous loss of property, from which that class never completely recovered. Ms. Sinha discusses that loss as a kind of founding event, and she mentions the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to an interracial democracy.
Dr. Michael Cullinane begins his article this way: “White supremacy tarnishes every era of United States history. Even at the outset of the government’s founding [in 1776], white privilege prevailed.” I found it refreshing to read about a familiar topic from a non-American perspective.
While reading, I couldn’t help imagining the voice of my late grandmother (dad’s mother), who had southern roots. “But those people belong with their own kind,” she would say. “It’s only natural.” She also liked to reminisce about the “good old days,” when “everybody had servants.”
Last week, when teaching a story in the “Southern Gothic” tradition to my first-year English classes, I thought about how upper-class southern nostalgia for the “gracious living” of the antebellum past has spread throughout American mainstream culture. It literally makes me nauseous.
Even while gruesome little cell-phone videos show white men in uniform killing unarmed black civilians in front of their loved ones, and this evidence is shown regularly on the news (even here in Canada), the mainstream mantra seems to be “there’s fault on both sides.” I’m sure this would be my father’s argument.
Any moral code that isn’t based on a general recognition of human rights seems to me to be no better than anarchy. Yet morally-righteous defenders of extreme oppression seem to abound everywhere, including in Canada. The only difference between nations is in which underdog is being abused.
And I haven’t even brought up violence against women. In the region where I live, this especially affects indigenous women.
Mirtha sometimes tells me she wants to get off this planet. Sometimes I want to go with her. But since we’re not really willing to die yet, we distract ourselves with the comforts of our own little life together.
Even though I sign petitions and even send letters of protest to various levels of government about the latest outrage, I know there is really nothing we can do about racism, or sexism, or classism. All these abominations seem to be getting worse rather than fading away, as the optimists of the past said they would.
In the meanwhile, there’s always good food and drink for those of us who can afford them.