November marks the official roll-out of the winter holiday season—a magical time typically characterized by innocent idealists as “the most wonderful time of the year.” ‘Tis the season for celebrating the joys of giving and receiving, which all starts with the Thanksgiving holiday.
Whether the cluster of end-of-year holidays were aligned this way by complete coincidence or by practical design, when leveraged wisely, the closeout of the year presents an excellent opportunity to honestly reflect upon the happenings of the past and the conditions of the present, in order to plan for a better future. I’ll admit that, in previous years, I’ve found myself so distracted by the superficial, material aspects of these holidays—the rich food, the gifts, the parties, and so on—that, while trapped in my own web of gluttonous indulgence, I would procrastinate engaging in this period of reflection, in hopes of having time during the next upcoming holiday. Sometimes, I would completely neglect partaking in this practice at all.
However, thanks to 2016’s relentless series of sociopolitical and cultural shockers, assessing both the past and present has become an unavoidable task this holiday season, as the urgency for answers pertaining to an unpredictable future grows. That said, my personal period of reflection began as soon as the grocery stores started breaking out 20 lbs. turkeys, and coffee houses started pushing pumpkin infused everything.
A Walk Down Memory Lane With the Ghost of Thanksgiving Past
Like most preschool children required to crudely finger paint hand-print turkeys or craft cornucopias from colorful crepe paper and glue sticks at this time of year, from a very early age, I was taught that Thanksgiving was an American tradition intended to celebrate gratitude. Today, Thanksgiving is widely regarded as an opportunity for peace, unity, and love among the masses, in spite of any cultural, political, or social differences.
On the third Thursday of November, it is expected that—for 24 hours—everyone checks their differences at the door, in an effort to openly spread kindness and selflessly extend helping hands to family, friends, and neighbors. The purpose of this is to emulate the generosity of the Native Americans, specifically when the Wampanoag Tribe opened their arms, shared their table, and helped the Pilgrims at what is historically considered to be the first Thanksgiving, back in 1621.
Granted, in preschool, teachers often fail to mention that following this delightful dinner, all sense of civility quickly went out the window, as soon as the puritanical Pilgrims of Plymouth recalled their sanctimonious self-perception firmly rooted in their own social and moral piety. This is also the same belief system that ultimately justified their entitlement to complete ownership of the land and its original Native American inhabitants. And, as we all know, this westernized mentality of, “Hey, we have a standard system of beliefs we feel like we need to impose upon anyone slightly different than ourselves! Let’s take over this land and marginalize its native occupants—because who wouldn’t want to be demoralized, murdered, enslaved by, or contract syphilis and smallpox from us?!” has become a redundant pattern interwoven into the fabric of history in one fashion or another—especially on U.S. soil—until about….well…..today!
Turn and Face the Strange
Forgive me for spoiling the magic of classic American folklore with a harsh dose of reality, but, after all we have endured socially, culturally, environmentally, and politically, this year, I’m finding it a wee bit difficult to keep my rose colored glasses on.
Between all the incidents of police brutality, 234 of which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of African American citizens; the questionable antics of a the president-elect, from the agendas of those he has invited to join his administration and his proposed plans intended to “make America great,” to his impulsive, temperamental, instigatory comments to the press and on social media; the president-elect’s “posse”of white supremacist and alt right supporters, who continue to view his appointment to Commander in Chief as an excuse to go H.A.M, wreaking havoc on African American, Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic, and LGBTQ communities; the passing of so many innovative cultural icons whose contributions have helped mold and drive culture, like Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, and Edward Albee; and even the necessity of an obituary to declare the death of the Great Barrier Reef—trudging through 2016 has been difficult. I’ve admittedly had a hard time trying to find my way back to the sunny side of the street, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I know that people have survived and endured far worse, but to say that the many disappointments of 2016 have been mentally and emotionally draining, would be an understatement. I’m sorry, but when an esteemed, southern HBCU ends up hosting a senatorial debate—which happens to include not just any ole former member of the KKK, but a founder of a chapter based in that very state1—oversight or not, I think that’s grounds for some form of an existential crisis.
Is Nothing Sacred?
Even the sanctity of musical theater, an original American art form designed to bring the masses together with entertainment, for a leisurely escape with song, dance, and creative spectacle, was challenged this year, when VP-elect Mike Pence and his family attended a production of Hamilton.
His presence, of course, created controversy on all sides; first, via the negative reaction of the audience that, upon realizing Pence was among them, met him with boos and jeers. However, the cast ended the sounds of collective discourse by politely addressing the VP-elect directly, with an inspiring, honest message from the heart, on behalf of all those who are concerned that the rising administration will fail to preserve the inalienable rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens in The Declaration of Independence.
Though Pence was not offended by this, and, in fact, claimed it was “a joy to be there,” America’s next Commander in Chief and favorite trigger-happy Twitter troll clapped back on the Web, with tweets that accused the cast of harassing Pence; criticized their thoughtful, inclusionary comments directed to the VP-elect; and insulted the quality of the production as a whole, referring to it as “overrated.”
Now, obviously there have been plenty more serious happenings within the political sphere that merits far more attention from the media and greater outrage among society than this. But, as someone who has been a loyal musical theater nerd with devotion to the discipline that predates my first preschool hand-print Thanksgiving turkey art project, I’ll admit that this incident, for me, was the final absurd straw to break the camel’s back.
This wasn’t just any play; this was a show about our founding fathers and the cultivation of the principle pillars for American democracy. Not to mention, the Tony Award-winning show is produced by one of the most diverse artist collectives ever to grace Broadway. If the cast really cared to see Pence get “harassed,” they could’ve not said a word, and left him to fend for himself against the growling wolves in the audience.
Plus—it’s the theater! It’s art! Art is about expression, and without it, the scope of freedom and creativity is limited to…well….140 characters.
Have We Officially Reached the Winter of Our Discontent?
So, after the ceaseless carousel ride of shock, disappointment, and sadness, otherwise known as the year 2016, how could anyone not question the direction in which humanity seems to be facing?
I’m sure that even Linus van Pelt, the moral compass of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts who, in addition to his co-dependent relationship with a blue blanket, is best known for being eternally optimistic, insightfully honest, and wise beyond his years, would have a hard time wrapping his little sparsely covered cranium around all that’s happened. And no amount of stalking the mythical Great Pumpkin or spotlit monologues about what the holidays “are all about” would be enough to distract from or dissuade Charlie Brown and friends’ disgruntled cynicism and pessimism. Lucy’s psychiatry booth would have a line around the block.
I’m almost certain that if the 1973 A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special was repurposed for 2016, Franklin would still take his isolated seat at the opposite end of the dinner table—as pictured below—if not in protest, then out of sheer discomfort over being the only black kid included in their clique since 1968.
From A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, created by Charles M. Schultz (1973). Image: YouTube/oscardelrio
So… What Exactly Can We Be Thankful for This Holiday Season?
If genuinely good intent can be so easily twisted and tainted with perversion, without any pause to absorb and process that which is being communicated through a filter of rationality; if kindness, compassion, free speech, and the basic civil rights can come under the level of scrutiny it has in 2016, as if time is moving backwards—I think to have anxiety and concern about the future is not only inevitable, it is a signifier of a sound mind. (Yes, I realize that sentence is somewhat of an oxymoron, but given that contradictions and hypocrisy seem to reign supreme now, I think it’s actually a fitting observation.)
All notions of progress and reason seem to have fallen under the guillotine of voluntary ignorance, superficial communication, and a toxic groupthink mentality. Additionally, many of the role models and leaders that, in life, helped to push people think, by forcing others to see the world from a different point of view while praising acceptance and individuality, are now deceased.
While things may appear to be utterly hopeless, and we are, as Joni Mitchell once put it, “trapped on the carousel of time,” chained by our own fears—all is not lost. Believe it or not, we have more control over humanity’s fate than we even realize, and thoughtful, individual expressions of sincere warmth, generosity, and love—big or small— have the power to heal and eventually improve the state of the human condition for future generations.
But, Who Do We Look to Now?
That’s easy—ourselves. Though 2016 has been nothing short of, as Shakespeare once wrote, “the winter of our discontent,” that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of seizing this as an opportunity to make a real difference and enact lasting change.
This chaos has left a void for kindness. Every small, simple, selfless act—from holding the door open for the person behind you, to sharing your lunch with a homeless person, or giving up your seat on a crowded train—has the potential to make an incredible impact. Now, your kindness may not always be immediately appreciated or reciprocated, but your example will be enough to restore faith in humanity for someone else, who will be inspired to then pay it forward.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As Michelle Obama so eloquently said, “When they go low, we go high.” We don’t go anywhere other than up. We stay true to ourselves and continue to pursue what we want and make an effort to improve our community, in spite of the potential resistance from the majority. We are the ones who are solely responsible for making the world a better place. If we don’t want the negative moments of history to repeat, then we don’t have to allow it to happen.
What Do We Do?
Though difficult, the best defense against social ills is to kill them with kindness. Where there is darkness, you bring light. Where there is sorrow, you bring joy. Where there is ruthlessness, you bring mercy. Where there is dishonesty, you bring compassion. And where there is hate, you bring unconditional love.
Is All Hope Completely Lost?
Absolutely not. As I said before, history has a tendency to repeat itself, and as much as this appears to be a curse, it is also a blessing in disguise. Although we humans seem to have a propensity for self-sabotage, we are also masters of redemption. Our inherent sense of incredible resiliency is something we can all be thankful for, because as quickly as we destroy, we can rebuild.
It’s the holidays. Although it’s been a turbulent year and the prospect of what the future could hold is frightening for many of us, I’m still thankful to be alive and well today. In spite of all the world’s ugliness, I’m thankful that I’ve still managed to, somehow, find a way to surrounded myself with thoughtful, generous, intelligent, and compassionate individuals of integrity. Most of all, I’m thankful to have been presented with the challenged to rise above injustice, because I’m ready to make a meaningful difference on behalf of the greater good.
What are you thankful for?
Jordan Powers Willard is an essayist and Copy Editor at Black Enterprise. Follow her on Twitter @jpw599.
1 Rose, Douglas. The Emergence of David Duke and the Politics of Race. University of North Carolina Press. 1992.