Celebration as Resistance

Thanksgiving presented a strange conundrum for me. How could I relate to a holiday that plays into a white supremacist fantasy of the founding of our country, but which emphasizes gratitude? On the one hand, there was the allure of tradition, family togetherness, and a time to remember to be grateful for each other and our food. On the other, there is always a horrific narrative hiding under the globs of whipped cream and pumpkin pie.  A year after the election, it felt more important than ever to find the balance between loving this country and holding it accountable, to find the balance between celebration and resistance.

In the past year, the administration has aggravated centuries of collective suffering for this country’s Native American, Black, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, and LGBQT communities, as well as the suffering of our earth, its resources, and animals. The suffering has been there, to say the least. It was never dormant, but it is now being experienced in a new way. We are in a moment of having to renegotiate the trauma.  We have to make choices about how to live in a society and within institutions that are continuously perpetrating violence, especially toward people of color.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, I taught a creative writing class in the Orleans Justice Center, and I met a woman who went by the nickname of Sweets. She was a thin and small Black woman, probably in her fifties, with a shaved head. Her arms swam in the sleeves of her maroon jumpsuit, and I noticed the scars from her elbow to her wrist as she spoke to me.

“My life has been hell,” she told me. “I’ve had so much pain. I’ve been hurt so bad. And I just want to turn around and hurt others the way I’ve been hurt.”  Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes.

Depending on who we are, the choices we make within these systems are limited. I was keenly aware of the difference between our ability to make choices and our opportunities when I left her and walked out into the fresh evening air.  I was glad that I hadn’t brought in a lesson on gratitude for the week’s class.

And yet, she had expressed gratitude multiple times in the hour we were together: for the other students who’d listened to her, for the poetry we had read, for the writing class itself.  All of the students had made jokes and laughed together, especially when the security guard pulled out a candy bar, took one bite, and then appeared to go back to sleep in her corner of the jail’s classroom.

For me, in deciding how I want to live in this modern society, in this system of violence, I realized I have to remember that my ancestors also had to make choices in order to survive and to raise their children to survive. I think about the tools of resistance they gave me. The most important ones they passed on were culture and identity. They taught me to value precisely the parts of me that are not valued by our society.

Before going into the jail, I had taught another class with a group of university students who were from all different backgrounds. We shared about our holiday traditions during this time of year. One student described how his grandmother comes over at noon to cook a Korean feast for the family on Christmas Day. Another participant spoke about going deer hunting in rural Mississippi on Thanksgiving.  I shared about how my father would make caramels on Christmas Eve and the entire family would help cut and wrap them.  As we all spoke, I pictured all of these families, of different and sometimes mixed races and ethnicities, celebrating. Despite my reservations about Thanksgiving and its history, celebrating felt right.

I realized that it was not a question of balancing celebration and resistance. Celebration is resistance. As we cultivate the joy and the love in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our lives, we are reclaiming our families, our bodies, and ourselves. Celebration is a way to refuse to be broken. We recharge so that we are ready for the next time we have to defend ourselves. Moreover, I thought about how we can create spaces of celebration as parents, as teachers, or simply as community members.  We can also offer the narratives and lessons that are truly worth celebrating.  Educators, in particular, are in the perfect position to do this. At Thanksgiving we might offer teachings to children about the resistance offered by water protectors at Standing Rock, and some of the Native Americans who have fought for the dignity and humanity of our country: Black Elk, Geronimo, Wilma Mankiller, Tecumseh, Winona LaDuke, Crazy Horse, Linda Hogan, L. Frank Manriquez, Chief Joseph, Chrystos, Leonard Peltier, Anne Dunn, Red Cloud, John Trudell, Mona Stonefish, Vine Deloria, Jr., and Wovoka to name a few. We might also lift up, acknowledge, and when appropriate, celebrate other holidays during this season, including Kwanzaa, El Día de Los Reyes, Hanukkah, and Bodhi Day. If joy is resistance, connecting with the traditions and celebrations of other people of color is another way to build the movement.

Ultimately, I decided to spend the holiday at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi . A group of about thirty Vietnamese monks and nuns practice there in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.  Amongst the forest and fields of the monastery grounds, there is a garden with a statute of the two of them that commemorates their friendship and shared aspiration to build a beloved community. On Thanksgiving Day, along with some other visitors, I meditated, ate a big meal, and sang songs with the monks and nuns. I cultivated joy. Just like with the students at Tulane and the women in jail, I didn’t need to ask them to sign a petition or call their representative. While those are important, I’ve realized it is equally important to have a space where we can be ourselves, enjoy each other, and laugh.

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