Tag Archives: American History

You Can Keep Thanksgiving, I’m Taking Channukah

Of all the holidays that I don’t like Thanksgiving has got to be one of my least favorites. This year I’m grateful that my least favorite holiday overlaps with my favorite- Channukah. Now when everyone is happy and wishing each other a happy holiday I can join in all the fun, plus I get to do it for eight days so that’s nifty.

When it comes down to it I’m a traditionalist. I like like ceremony and repetition and ties to my history and so while I’m a firm agnostic you can still find me singing hymns and lighting menorahs and doing all the other stuff that my religiously polyglot family has been doing for centuries. My issue with Thanksgiving is that all of its traditions seem to come back to the same place- the fact that we committed genocide and then turned the start of this genocide into a lovely myth about how self-reliant and hardy and inherently good our ancestors were.

Maybe I’m cynical horrible person who takes joy in being miserable but I’m also not a fan of current attempts to focus Thanksgiving away from whitewashing our national history towards a day that we focus on being grateful for the blessings in our life. Rather than actually addressing the blood that our flag covers we’d rather direct our attention to nice things that don’t make us think of the violence our nation sits up. I’m all for a holiday when we share our love and count our blessings and give thanks to those that bring us joy but I’d rather not have that holiday come at the expense of forgetting about, you know, fucking genocide. If we’re going to have a holiday to give thanks let’s pick a day that doesn’t erase our blood soaked history (I’d like to put forward January 25th as a nice option.)

Let’s burn down “Native American” holiday decorations. Let’s yell at people who try to use today to propagate a history that makes white cishet landowning men look good. Let’s actively try to make today a day of solemn remembrance.

But I realize that this isn’t something that’s going to happen over night. I’m still going to sit down tonight and eat turkey because I do it for a family that loves me. I’m going to practice self-care and try to avoid getting myself into situations that could ruin the holiday for others sitting around my table.

What I will do is politely speak up and remember that I have 364 other days to be rude and angry about Thanksgiving because these are the compromises we make for our immediate loved ones. And I’m going to regularly look at the menorah and take strength from the three lights I’ll see glowing at the dark window.

So I wish you a Happy Channukah with a reminder to remember our dark history that America so happily tries to forget.

Advertisements

Review: “Dreaming In French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis”

The primary myth of self-identification that we Americans have created is one of independence. Despite the fact that our nation and its culture are drawn from nations and cultures around the world we like to see ourselves as self reliant, the shining city on an isolated hill, a group of hard-up settlers who transformed the wilderness in paradise with nothing but our own hands. While most of us can probably agree that this myth holds little truth it can be disturbingly easy to lose ourselves in this myth. If Alice Kaplan’s new book achieves only one thing it is that this book reminds us that our intellectual and cultural leaders do not exist in an America-only vacuum. The book is divided into three biographies that explore the relationship between their subjects and France, specifically focusing on the year or two that each spent in La Belle France.

The American notion of France is divided. We have, among others, the glittering lives of the 18th century nobles (and their subsequent bloody end); the easily dismissed effeminate French with their black and white striped shirts and the men sporting ridiculously thin mustaches; the Paris with panache; the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and the France of Julia Child. Of course these attempts of reducing a nation, a people, to such simple strokes is obviously absurd. France, like America, like Guinea, like every nation in the world, is a complex mixture of culture and history that can only be fully described in a 2,000 page tome*. Ms. Kaplan’s choice of subjects helps to show the diversity of the French identity. Yes, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Davis both are notable social commentators (although this is only one part of each of their identities) but Ms. Kennedy? (One can almost hear, “One of these things is not like the other,” playing in the background.)

The France that Ms. Kennedy arrives in is rebuilding after the horrific Nazi occupation. Not only is the nation rebuilding itself structurally and economically but also socially as it tries to figure out what sort of nation it now is. Ms. Sontag’s Paris is the Paris of the great American expatriates who spoke English in their tiny flats and over cheap croissants. Her Paris is not the more chic Paris that Ms. Kennedy experienced but it is the physical location of an American counter-culture. It is the France of Ms. Davis that I found most fascinating as it is the farthest from the France that I’m familiar with. When she first arrives she enters into the world of existential philosophers but soon she is caught up in the French-Algerian dynamics that would influence her revolutionary ideals. Ms. Kaplan deftly shows  how Ms. Davis’ experiences with the race relations of a foreign culture would become useful not only in forming her ideas on society but also useful in her activism.

Readers who pick up this book looking for standard biographies of these three remarkable women will not find what they went looking for. Rather they will find Ms. Kaplan putting forth (and persuasively arguing) a thesis on how Paris helped to shape the lifestyles and politics that Ms. Kennedy, Sontag and Davis would become known for. If I was forced to pick a fault with this book, to lay out a major critique, it might be that Ms. Kaplan’s thesis is grander than the argument she puts forward. Except, except that might be the exact reason why this book is important. In our hero worship of our American Greats we dismiss the possibility that they relied on others (particularly foreign others) to help them form their identities. We need to be reminded that even our 20th century cultural and intellectual leaders did not spring fully formed from their mothers’ wombs.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis; Alice Kaplan; The University of Chicago Press, copyright 2012

*I believe you can see the hyperbole in this statement. It doesn’t necessarily need to be 2,000 pages or even a written tome but I think you get the idea. Nations aren’t simple, folks.