The late Bobby “Blue” Bland released a record called “Lead Me On” in 1960. Those days, he alternated blues shouters and smooth pop artiste sides.
“Lead Me On” was in the latter category. When I heard the song decades later, it shivered my spine. Spectral strings and a hushed, yet majestic vocal – but what struck me wasn’t only the atmospherics, although brilliant, but also the lyrics (by Al Braggs). They said that you, the listener, understood what it was like to be a stranger in an unfriendly land. Not yelling at you this integral truth, but drawing you into the conversation. (Story continues after video.)
This feeling of perpetual apartness was all too common an emotion for me during my family’s poverty-plagued pilgrimage across Texas. I won’t bore you with tales of my particular traumas. Many of us have such scars. When I heard Bobby Bland’s song, I thought: He knows me, and for the space of a song, I know him.
An emotional connection is no substitute for experience. Although I felt the song, and drew strength for my own struggle, my pain wasn’t his.
Strangers in an unfriendly land. Many of us have a connection with what that’s like, whether through personal experience or through that of our ancestors. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decided that we as a nation deserved respite from a more organized form of hostility. Editor Sarah Josepha Hale helped inspire this move.
The official date of Thanksgiving, begun as a ray of light during the Civil War, has grown into a holiday celebrated by Americans of all stripes. While some may trumpet religiosity or poke holes in the narrative, it’s a secular holiday blessedly devoid of most political shading.
Thanksgiving isn’t free of baggage, however. It’s not a holiday where one should forget about those who sacrifice to make it happen. If you’re the person cooking the turkey, or cursed with working that day by heartless employers – no, you don’t get to choose the giving.
Those who rode the Mayflower, the people whose hats we drew in first grade, weren’t the first Americans. They weren’t even Americans. Not yet. They were immigrants, some of whom belonged to a despised religious minority. Didn’t speak the local language. Stubbornly clung to foreign customs.
For that matter, Pilgrims weren’t the first strangers to this shore, for decades earlier, Spaniards settled in St. Augustine, Florida, establishing the first permanent, continuously Euro-settled city in what is now the United States.
There’s evidence that St. Augustine was the site of the first Native-European Thanksgiving back in 1565.
It’s a reminder that in many parts of our country the first European tongue heard by people of the First Nations wasn’t English, but Spanish.
Each Thanksgiving as we celebrate, more newcomers join the gathering. New flavors are added. Some may not have familiar accents, nor may their papers be quite in order, but most are here with a benign purpose. Not to steal, but to give of their hard work, tax dollars, and ambition.
When politicians throw sludge in the gears of immigration reform, when their approach to such a contentious issue provides more bombast than insight – this isn’t the American spirit that led Native peoples to share food and knowledge with newcomers.
Nor does Beltway inhospitality reflect the spiritual insights of Lincoln’s original Thanksgiving proclamation, which pleaded of the Creator to “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation….”
Let holiday table conversations gather us together rather than push each other apart.
Let Lincoln’s words lead us back to remembering that this is a day of humility and healing, not of seeking bargains before the sun has set.
You may not feel particularly blessed right now. Not all of us have much to celebrate, but we can be kind to one another.
Make the day less unfriendly for those who toil far from the table of bounty. On this day, there are no strangers.
Photo: Diversity quilt, Oregon Department of Transportation CC 2.0