A Thanksgiving Letter to My Students
A happy thanksgiving, everyone! I know thanksgiving can be a difficult time for some students. Maybe you’re not going home or don’t feel like you have a ‘home’ to return to. In which case I really recommend pulling together your own community and celebrating any way you can. A chicken (or tofu) sandwich can be as good as a turkey if you can bond with others over it. As in any ritual, the sign means more than the substance.
It seems like now more than ever we need to be thinking about giving to each other, and gratitude for each other, and making the world through our everyday acts. I don’t want to talk politics here. Who you vote for is not my concern. But I know it’s quite possible that if you are going home this thanksgiving you will be with people you don’t agree with much on that score, and this could be an even more tense year than usual.
Since I’m a professor of culture and media studies, and culture is what we study, I want to make a small suggestion. Let’s practice the making of culture together. Thanksgiving is a ritual based on an historical story turned into a myth. It’s a myth about caring for strangers. On which now rests a ritual about sharing our lives with others.
My suggestion is to become a leader among the people closest to you in interpreting what this myth and this ritual means. Gently, persuasively, inclusively. Let’s all make it mean something more this year. Let’s use the real power of the myth of thanksgiving.
Because no matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or neither, we cannot stand idly by while racism, misogyny and homophobia become normal and acceptable everywhere. Xenophobia – hatred of strangers – is the very thing to resist, not the stranger. Thanksgiving is a ritual that includes the idea of xenophilia – love of strangers – so let’s make that real this time.
As an immigrant, thanksgiving is a ritual I had to learn about. My first is a very fond memory. Together with some other foreigners, we decided to throw a thanksgiving celebration to say thank you to our American friends, several of whom were ‘orphaned’ in New York for the holiday. After we got the turkey into the oven, it turned out none of us had ever cooked one, and had no idea how long it should take. Fretful about poisoning our friends and loved ones, we went knocking on doors to find someone to ask – but of course nobody was home.
Eventually we found an elderly woman with a lot of practical advice, but who was all alone – so we brought her to the party too. I am thankful to my adopted home, which accepted me, as a stranger. But now that it is my home too, I want to insist that we return to, and strengthen this spirit of welcome, of community as something we actively make, rather than take as a given based on some prejudice or other.
I’m not suggesting that taking care with what we do in our everyday lives is the answer to everything. But if we are to resist the siren calls of hatred and oppression, we have to offer something better, and preferably something that connects to values and feelings people already know and accept, however faintly. So let’s all try to show leadership among our own families and communities: gently, patiently, persistently, tactfully. You are most likely a young adult, so this is not an easy thing. But after all, one day you will be in charge of what the rituals mean.
You may be going home to a thanksgiving where you and your family think alike. Even so, I think we can live what we learn and practice culture leadership. As this unseasonably warm winter reminds us, climate disruption is with us and calls for our attention even as Washington seems set to ignore it. Perhaps we could be thankful in more than spirit to the brave indigenous communities who are standing up against the madness of building more pipelines. Here’s a link with some more information about that: http://www.ienearth.org/stand-with-standing-rock-no-dapl/
So happy thanksgiving, if it’s something you celebrate. If not, perhaps my suggestion is one you can adapt to the rituals and myths you and yours live by. This is not the only part of the world facing a rising tide of prejudice and intolerance. Let’s be thankful at least that we have the capacity to perceive this and do some things about it.
Chair of Culture and Media, Eugene Lang College
Chair of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research