“And They Call Me Barbarian”


Remember this scene from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)*? After witnessing Robin deliberately lie to his own English folk about the number of enemies approaching them, the North African Muslim character Azeem reflects to himself and says, “And they call me barbarian.”  Here’s the clip for those who haven’t seen it or need their memories refreshed:

Yeah, that’s my reaction whenever white non-Muslims like James Holmes go around shooting and killing innocent people. “And they call us (Muslims) terrorists,” I say.

Of course James Holmes, who indiscriminately opened fire on moviegoers at the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado,  is not called a “terrorist” because that term is reserved for Muslims only. Instead, Holmes is pronounced “mentally ill,” an ableist and inaccurate narrative since most people struggling with mental illnesses do not act out violently. Dismissed in the stereotyping of disabled bodies are the serious societal and political factors that contribute to the culture of violence in the United States. Meanwhile, white non-Muslim and able-bodied people never have to worry about being collectively blamed, stigmatized, racially profiled, or subjected to racist laws that target their entire race/community due to the violent actions of one man.

Even if some media outlets like NPR refer to Holmes as a terrorist, the narrative is still very different than how stories about Muslims are covered. When Muslims do it, the term “terrorist” is assigned to not just one person, but the entire community and religion. It’s heavily racialized and presented as an organized, “foreign” problem that threatens the existence of western civilization. White non-Muslim bodies like Holmes are ultimately seen as individuals, as “lone wolves,” and as “mentally ill.” The consequences of a white non-Muslim person committing an act of terror like this does not, as I pointed out, result in widespread, societal, and institutionalized discrimination against all white people.

In other words, I highly doubt Sherlock Holmes is worried about his next movie not being a hit just because he shares the same last name as a white terrorist. I’m confident that people with the first name “James” won’t get harassed with offensive questions like, “Have you ever thought about changing your name after what happened in Colorado?” (in the same way men with the first name “Osama” are). Also, I’m pretty sure that people who dress up as the Joker for Halloween aren’t going to be stopped in the street by police officers and demanded to provide their photo IDs or an explanation of why they’re dressed as Batman’s arch-nemesis  (in case you didn’t know, Holmes told the police, “I am the Joker”).

And let’s be honest about white non-Muslim privilege and power: a Muslim person wouldn’t have been able to legally purchase vast amounts of firepower (4 guns, 6,000 rounds of ammunition) Holmes did without having a visit from the FBI. Are the NYPD-CIA spy teams considering to infiltrate white neighborhoods, Presbyterian churches (since Holmes was reported to have been highly involved with his church), and schools in the same way they violated the rights of countless Muslims in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania? Do World War II buffs who collect German military uniforms, firearms, and other weapons need to worry about their homes being searched without warrants?

White supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy easily tells us that the answer is “no,” white non-Muslims do not need to be profiled or spied upon. Forget that James Holmes’ terrorism reveals the failure of gun control in the US and forget that opening fire in a movie theater shows how vulnerable people are. The “real threat,” we are constantly reminded, is from the “illegal immigrants,” the racialized peoples, the Muslims from “over there” who have the “mission” to “destroy the west from within.” These “real threats” need to be monitored, but not the white people who buy guns, ballistics gear, and ridiculous amounts of ammunition.

Lastly, I came across articles on Gawker and the New York Daily News about people who identify themselves as “Holmies,” or fans of James Holmes. They have Tumblr blogs, Facebook group pages, and YouTube videos in tribute of James Holmes. It is noteworthy to point out that these fans are predominately white and even try to emulate his manner of dress.  As one article put it, James Holmes has inspired “an online legion of ‘fans’ who upload original artworks and photos of themselves sporting Holmes-inspired plaid shirts flannel and sipping Slurpees.”

And they call us barbarians.

* Just a few thoughts on “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” I agree with Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” that the character of Azeem represents one of the rare positive images we see of Muslims in Hollywood cinema. However, I also agree with Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of “The Muslim Next Door,” that while Azeem is a hero, he is still otherized. I find the “devout mystical dude” and “loyal white man’s servant” portrayal of him to be really problematic and stereotypical, for sure. There are some moments when I appreciate how his character serves as a (often humorous) critique of romanticized European history (especially the Crusades) and the white imagination’s negative perception of Muslims and Islam.

Remembering Malcolm X


Malcolm X was assassinated on this day, February 21st, in 1965.  Like so many people in the world, Malcolm X’s life and commitment to social justice has had a profound impact on my life.  Although Malcolm’s legacy has received recognition in the mainstream, including a 1992 film directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, there is still a great misunderstanding about who he was.

There are still many who go as far as to vilify and demonize him.  Mainstream narratives about the civil rights movement still persist in creating a simplified dichotomy between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr.  The former is regarded as a “black supremacist” and “extremist,” whereas the latter is commemorated as the “peaceful” and “moderate” civil rights leader.  This distortion of history not only vilifies Malcolm, but also de-radicalizes Martin Luther King Jr. and co-opts his legacy for the ruling class.  It is very telling when you see white supremacists quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to justify discriminatory policies that work to silence and criminalize anti-racism.

One of the things that always bothered me about the “X-Men” was how the writers describe the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier as analogous to the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  The first “X-Men” film put Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” quote in the mouth of Magneto, the villain mutant, and most recently, Michael Fassbender admitted that the lives of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the story of “X-Men: First Class.”  As much as I could relate to the struggle of the mutants in “X-Men” and saw parallels with Islamophobia (especially in “X-Men 2″), the comic book writers and filmmakers constantly make the mistake in comparing Malcolm X to Magneto, a murderous mutant who wants to violently exterminate all humans.  Many have criticized this offensive allegory and rightfully so.  Anyone who delves into the biography of Malcolm X will know that he never killed anyone nor called for the “annihilation” of “white people.”  Advocating for self-defense, perhaps where Malcolm was misunderstood the most, does not mean one advocates violence.

Even in narratives that commemorate and revere Malcolm X, there are problematic “universalist” statements made about his life. He was a racist, they say, but then he went to Mecca and “saw the light,” i.e. he realized he shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  Indeed, when Malcolm went to the holy city of Mecca to perform his hajj, the experience had a profound impact on him. In his famous letter from Mecca, he admitted with humility and sincerity that his interactions with white Muslims, as well as the spiritual knowledge he learned, caused him to “re-arrange” his thoughts. Malcolm still recognized the system of white supremacy and reality of institutionalized racism against African-Americans and other people of color.  To accuse Malcolm of being a “racist” is irresponsible, as it erases the history and reality of racism in the United States, which Malcolm writes about in the letter, too.  Others choose to “water down” Malcolm in this narrative and many have argued that the Spike Lee film didn’t go far enough.  Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture stresses on how the film didn’t depict Malcolm’s visit in Africa and the Middle East, his meetings with African, Arab, and South American leaders, or his anti-Zionist politics.  She also points out that Lee received pressure from Hollywood producers because they were particularly concerned about showing Malcolm’s support of the Palestinians.

Being selective about Malcolm’s life and only focusing on his “post-Hajj” years is to overlook Malcolm’s complexities and how his life journey carries such a meaningful message about self-criticism, among other things. He was committed to learning and, unlike the political “leaders” in the world today, was not afraid to admit his mistakes.  There are still things we need to be critical of, however.  Similar to how bell hooks critiqued Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Aime Cesaire on their male-centered language, the same needs to be said about Malcolm X.   Writing only about male experiences with oppression perpetuates sexism, as it ignores and erases the experiences of women. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”

I remember when I took an entire class on Malcolm X, the professor, an African-American woman, critiqued Malcolm’s sexist logic throughout the semester and reminded us that much of Malcolm’s legacy has been shaped and defined by men. Malcolm was a strong advocate of women’s education, but many of his  attitudes towards women were also restrictive and rooted in distrust. My professor also spoke a lot about the women who played a significant role in Malcolm’s life, including his wife Betty Shabazz and his mother and sisters who taught him “the importance of race pride and self identity.”

I do find Malcolm’s sexist logic to be in line with traditional patriarchal attitudes that we can find in all communities. In his autobiography, Malcolm explains that Islam teaches true Love because the beauty of the person is found within, not on the outside.  I believe this is true, but the stereotypical gender roles were also present in Malcolm’s interpretation.  As a young Muslim man, I saw Malcolm’s leadership, politics, and courage as an example that was exclusive to men.  I viewed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a similar way. That is, men alone needed to be leaders and role models, whereas women were “followers” and “looked up to us.”

Critiques about masculinity and sexism in Malcolm’s life are important; they have been and are addressed by black feminists and activists. In other narratives, a lot of non-black Muslims try to isolate Malcolm as a Muslim and only a Muslim while ignoring African-American struggle. Through this process, Malcolm’s racial identity gets erased and he becomes an appropriated icon – this appropriation, under the assumption that all marginalized communities “share” the “same” oppression, only contributes to anti-black racism. Although I am not African-American, Malcolm’s speeches about not being ashamed of your skin color or where you come from resonated with me very strongly at a young age. My experiences as a South Asian-American are not the same as African-Americans, but Malcolm’s words helped me see important parallels of internalized racism within my community and, most of all, within myself.

There is a lot to appreciate, admire, and respect about Malcolm. Unlike so many today, he was not afraid to speak his mind and speak truth to power.  He didn’t worry about the way others perceived him and he didn’t change his words to please political parties or the white mainstream. He told it like it is.  Criticizing some of his sexist attitudes does not negate his anti-racist work or his advocacy for women’s rights, but rather keeps us critical of social justice struggles and how we can learn to strengthen efforts for liberation.   It is Malcolm’s self-criticism that has always inspired me and this is something all of us must do.  We must criticize the racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other oppressive norms that we have internalized.  Self-criticism reminds us about the importance of holding ourselves responsible and being mindful of the justice we seek for all communities.  As I have written on this blog so many times, racism and sexism are inseparable – there cannot be any true liberation while oppression still exists.

In closing, I wanted to share this excerpt from one of Malcolm’s final speeches that is so relevant today.  Malcolm comments on the multiple arms of racism and how dangerous the grasp of oppression can be when it transforms the victim into the oppressor, and the oppressor into the victim. An intersectional approach to the speech can help us connect Malcolm’s fierce criticism of victim-blaming racism to the way victims of sexual violence are blamed for oppression as well.  The speech was delivered five days before he was assassinated.  May Allah be pleased with Malcolm and may all of our communities work together to end oppression in all of its forms. Ameen.

We’re not against people because they’re white. But we’re against those who practice racism. We’re against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours. And because we’re against it, the press says we’re violent. We’re not for violence. We’re for peace.

We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York.

They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Christopher Columbus: The Heroification of a Mass Murderer

In most American history classrooms, children are taught that in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and “discovered America.”  In this narrative, Columbus is portrayed as an adventurous explorer and a national hero.  It is a narrative that is profoundly romanticized and even mythical, yet despite the historical records and accounts of Columbus’s heinous crimes against indigenous peoples, he is still glorified and honored in American history and culture.

Heroificiation, as defined by author James W. Loewen, is a “degenerative process” that distorts reality and transforms “flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.”  Christopher Columbus represents but one example in human history where an individual responsible for some of the most dreadful atrocities in our human history is molded into a savior-like figure and commemorated with a national holiday.  It is disturbing how most American schoolchildren learn from history teachers and textbooks to not only venerate Columbus, but also to recite poems, sing songs, and perform in romanticized reenactments about his arrival to the Americas.  These praises, accompanied with “Columbus Day” celebrations and parades, grossly gloss over the horrors of American Indian genocide initiated by Columbus’s expeditions.

American public schools rarely discuss Columbus’s atrocities. As Corine Fairbanks points out:

Recently, Roberta Weighill, Chumash, shared that her third grade son disagreed with his teacher about the Columbus discovery story and added that he knew Columbus to be responsible for the deaths of many Native people.  The public teacher corrected him: “No. Columbus was just a slave trader.” Hmmm, just a slave trader? Oh! Is that all?

American history textbooks paint Columbus as a hero by treating his voyages into the “oceanic unknown” as exceptional and unique, as if he was the only explorer who ever journeyed to the Americas.  Aside from the fact that indigenous peoples already lived in the land we now call the United States and weren’t waiting to be “discovered,” Columbus was not the first to set sail to the Americas.  In his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Loewen provides a chronological list of expeditions that reached the Americas prior to Columbus, including explorers from Siberia, Indonesia, Japan, Afro-Phoenicia, Portugal, among other countries.  Most of the eighteen high school history textbooks surveyed by Loewen omit the factors that prompted Columbus’s voyage in the first place: social change in Europe, advancement in military technology, use of the printing press – which allowed information to travel faster and further into Europe – and the ideological and theological rationalization for conquering new land.   For example, Columbus’s greed and pursuit of gold in Haiti is either extremely downplayed or absent in textbooks.  Columbus himself aligned amassing wealth with salvation, writing:  “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”  Accompanying Columbus on his 1494 expedition to Haiti was Michele de Cuneo, who wrote the following account:

After we had rested for several days in our settlement it seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers.

In elementary school, I remember learning that Columbus was peaceful to the indigenous people, who were in turn friendly and welcoming of the Spaniards.  If anything was mentioned about war, it was always presented as, “There were good people and bad people on both sides.”  Such an explanation shamelessly ignores the fact that “over 95 million indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere were enslaved, mutilated and massacred.”  The myth that Native Americans and Europeans were equally responsible for gruesome brutality was also reinforced in Disney’s animated feature, “Pocahontas.”  The film placed Native American resistance and European violence on the same plane, i.e. the extremists on “both sides” made it bad for those who wanted peace, and colonialist domination and power was not a contributing factor to any form of resistance from the Natives.  This distortion of history often likes to behave as sympathetic to Native Americans, but what it actually does is consistently depict them as “inferior” and “backwards,” while lionizing European colonizers and settlers, as well as constructing a history that is complimentary to the nationalism and pro-Americanism preached in most American schools.

I don’t think I would have learned about what Columbus really did if I didn’t start reading about Islamic history, which, too, was either ignored or vilified (especially during lessons on the Crusades) in my history classes.  1492, the same year Columbus sailed to the Americas, was also the year of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or leave the country.  The Catholic reconquest of Spain – the Reconquista – by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella heightened interest in expanding European Christian domination, which led to their eventual agreement to sponsor Columbus’s voyage.

Upon his arrival to the Bahamas, Columbus and his sailors were greeted by Arawak men and women.  Columbus wrote of them in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Worth noting is how Columbus’s description of the Arawak correlates with his sense of European entitlement and superiority.  In several accounts, he praised the Arawak and other indigenous tribes for being hospitable, handsome, and intelligent, but not without saying they would make “fine servants.”  When Columbus justified enslavement and his wars against the Natives, he vilified them as “cruel,” “stupid,” and “a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours.”

It is also important to understand the genocide of indigenous people could not have been possible without racism and sexual violence. Cherokee scholar and feminist-activist Andrea Smith cites Ann Stoler’s analysis of racism to illustrate the relationship between sexual violence and colonialism: “Racism is not an effect but a tactic in the internal fission of society into binary opposition, a means of creating ‘biologized’ internal enemies, against whom society must defend itself.”  Racism marks the “other” as “inherently dirty,” and subsequently “inherently rapable.”  For this reason, Smith argues that sexual violence is a weapon of patriarchy and colonialism, as opposed to being a separate issue altogether:

Because Indian bodies are “dirty,” they are considered sexually violable and “rapable,” and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count. For instance, prostitutes are almost never believed when they say they have been raped because the dominant society considers the bodies of sex workers undeserving of integrity and violable at all times. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear that Indian people are not entitled to bodily integrity.

Sexual violence and degradation of Native bodies is evident in how Columbus used Taino women as sex slaves and sexual rewards for his men.  Columbus profited off of sex-slave trade by exporting them to other parts of the world.  In fact, most of his income came from slavery.  In 1500, he wrote to a friend:  “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

During an online conversation, some defended Columbus by arguing he was only carrying out the “norms of his time.” Justifying Columbus’s actions by the “standards” of his time, or through historical moral relativism, is problematic, not only because it dismisses genocide, sex slavery, and land theft, but also because it suggests there are overall honorable traits about Columbus and that he should be commemorated.  For instance, Bartolome de Las Casas, the Spanish-born Dominican Bishop of Chiapas, witnessed and documented the horrors of Columbus’s subjugation, enslavement, and massacre of indigenous people. He is often quoted for writing:

What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and humankind and this trade [in American Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them.

De Las Casas was absolutely mortified by the brutality he witnessed.  In numerous accounts, he reports about Columbus commanding his men to cut off the legs of children who would run away; about Spaniards hunting and killing Natives for sport; about colonialists testing the sharpness of their blades on living, breathing Native bodies; about Columbus’s men placing bets on who would cut a person in half in a single sweep of their swords.  De Las Casas wrote:  “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

Although De Las Casas was strongly opposed to Columbus’s enslavement and dehumanization of Native peoples, his advocacy of indigenous rights and ending slavery was motivated by his desire to “convert and baptize the ‘heathen’ Indians.”  In his debate with Juan Gines de Supulveda, who argued that the Natives were “barbarians” and predisposed to slavery, De Las Casas argued that they were intelligent and capable of attaining salvation in Christianity without coercion.

The point of mentioning De Las Casas is to show that, despite his missionary agenda, he was among Columbus’s contemporaries who were outraged and disgusted by his treatment of indigenous peoples.  In other words, if the argument is that Columbus shouldn’t be judged by “today’s standards,” then we ought to judge him based on De Las Casas’ account.  However, it is also quite unsettling that De Las Casas’ needs to be used in this manner – what does it say about the voices of Native Americans who live today and reflect on the genocide of their ancestors?  Are their voices and accounts of Columbus’s atrocities not credible enough?

Also, what are “today’s standards”?  Inherit in the romantic mythology of Columbus’s heroism is the white supremacist heteropatriarchal imperialism that colonizes, exploits, and unleashes massacres and sexual violence upon people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and in parts of the world like Pakistan where war eerily operates as if there is no war, despite US military presence, airbases, drone assaults, political intervention, etc.  Entire peoples are being vilified, demonized; their histories distorted, omitted; and Native Americans continue to resist and struggle against ongoing genocide that seeks to exterminate them. In fact, it is the logic of genocide, as Smith reminds us, that insists Native peoples must fade into nonexistence.  War criminals are still glorified; war crimes are still justified; inhumane practices against humanity are still occurring in secrecy.

The Reconsider Columbus Day effort challenges the status quo, not just for the sake of restoring dignity and honesty to human history, but also for eradicating tyranny, colonialism, and imperialism that exists in the present.  When American schoolchildren are taught to identify with Columbus, they are aligning themselves with an oppressor and making a racial distinction between “us” and “them.”   The point of dismantling the way we celebrate and honor Columbus goes beyond exposing Columbus’s personality, it’s about taking responsibility for the ways we are complicit in reinforcing the logic of genocide. It’s about decolonizing ourselves in order to bring about radical, revolutionary change to society.

Decolonize for the sake of today, and for the sake of tomorrow.

Thanksgiving and Forgotten Genocide: Brainwashing of American Textbooks

Those who are indigenous to the land we now call the “United States of America” have been long misrepresented, demonized, and effectively marginalized in American history textbooks in favor of glorifying European colonialism. Why does “democracy” refuse to teach that 10 to 30 million Natives were unjustifiably slaughtered in the name of conquest and imperialism? Where is the “free market of ideas” when selective and biased history is being taught in our educational institutions?

Erasing the memory of an entire race of people is cultural genocide. Not only is biased history presented to us through a distorted lens, but we are also subjected to the realities of capitalism, in which commercialization of an ambiguous holiday pulls us away from facts and meaning. Turkeys are associated with “Thanksgiving” in the same way Santa Clause and the Easter bunny have become synonymous with Christmas and Easter, respectively. Through the guise of innocence and “good holiday spirit”, capitalism is constantly telling us to consume because consumption equals “happiness.” It is no coincidence that we all rush to our favorite malls and shopping centers on “Black Friday” for “big savings.”

And as children dress up as Pilgrims and Natives to reenact the romanticized version of history, they are not only perpetuating stereotypes, but more importantly, they’re embodying racist and ethnocentric lies. What do they really know about the Pilgrims and the Natives? Consider a high school history textbook called “The American Tradition” which describes the scene quite succinctly:

After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth Harbor for their settlement. Unfortunately, they had arrived in December and were not prepared for the New England winter. However, they were aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

This patronizing version of history excludes many brutal facts about European history. As stated by James W. Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” many college students are unaware of the horrific plague that devastated and significantly reduced the population of Natives after Columbus’ arrival in the “new world.” Most diseases, for instance, came from animals that were domesticated by Europeans. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, which was later “spread through gifts of blankets by infected Europeans.” Of the twelve high school textbooks Professor Loewen studied and analyzed, only three offer some explanation that the plague was a factor of European colonization. The nine remaining textbooks mention almost nothing, and two of them omit the subject altogether. He writes: “Each of the other seven furnishes only a fragment of a paragraph that does not even make it into the index, let alone into students’ minds.”

Why is it important to mention the plague? Quite simply, it reinforced European ethnocentrism and hardly produced a “friendly” relationship between the Natives and Europeans. To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, and demonic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in England:

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect…

The ugly truth is that many Pilgrims were thankful and grateful that the Native population was decreasing. Even worse, there was the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which started after the colonists found a murdered white man in his boat. Ninety armed settlers burned a Native village, along with their crops, and then demanded the Natives to turn in the murderers. When the Natives refused, a massacre followed.

Captain John Mason and his colonial army surrounded a fortified Pequot village and reportedly shouted: “We must burn them! Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord Judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.” The surviving Pequot were hunted and slain.

The Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, further elaborates:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

Perhaps most disturbing: it is strongly argued by many historians that the Pequot Massacre led to the “Thanksgiving” festivities. The day after the massacre, the aforementioned Governor Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

Now, one may ask: What about Squanto, the Wampanoag man who learned to speak English and helped the hungry, ill, and poor Pilgrims? As cited by Professor Loewen, an American high school textbook called “Land of Promise” reads:

Squanto had learned their language, the author explained, from English fishermen who ventured into the New England waters each summer. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, squash, and pumpkins. Would the small band of settlers have survived without Squanto’s help? We cannot say. But by the fall of 1621, colonists and Indians could sit down to several days of feast and thanksgiving to God (later celebrated as the first Thanksgiving).

Note that this text states the first Thanksgiving was on 1621. Indeed, there was a feast on that year, but it was not called a “Thanksgiving feast” nor was it repeated until years later after the Pequot Massacre in 1637. In regards to Squanto, the correct question to ask is: How did Squanto learn English? History textbooks neglect to mention that the Europeans did not perceive Squanto as an equal, but rather as “an instrument of their God” to help the “chosen people.” It is also omitted that, as a boy, Squanto was stolen by a British captain in 1605 and taken to England. He worked for a Plymouth Merchant who eventually helped him arrange passage back to Massachusetts, but less than a year later, he was seized by a British slave raider. Along with two dozen fellow Natives, Squanto was sold into slavery in Spain. He would manage to escape slavery, journey back to England, and then talk a ship captain into taking him along on his next trip to Cape Cod in 1619.

As Squanto walked back into his home village, he was horrified to find that he was the only surviving member of his village. The rest were either killed in battle or died of illness and disease. Excluding Squanto’s enslavement is to paint an incredibly distorted version of history that suggests Natives, like Squanto, learned English for no other reason but to help the colonists. It is to glorify the Europeans and erase the struggles and experiences of the Native people.

When history is transformed into myths, tales, and bedtime stories, we ignore historical research that enables us to learn valuable and meaningful lessons about our present, as well as about our future. History is meant to be an accurate and honest account of civilizations, cultures, and events; not a one-sided narrative of ethnocentric and selective alterations.

As Professor Loewen states:

Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them ‘Pilgrims’ until the 1870s.

I did not write this post to pass judgment on everyone who is celebrating “Thanksgiving.” None of us are responsible for the atrocities committed hundreds of years ago. None of us caused the plague or the massacres. But as human beings, I do feel that it’s important to educate ourselves about history, to acknowledge that the United States was founded on dispossession of Native people, to be aware of our complicities (when we, including people of color, seek to become social equals with those who use their power to oppress others).

The fact that history textbooks and schools try to glorify the Pilgrims while omitting significant facts about Native peoples represent the ongoing cultural genocide in the United States. Let us not become clouded by super-patriotism or the blowout sales of “Black Friday.” Let us be conscious of our brothers and sisters in humanity, learn about their contributions, and embolden ourselves to stand up against racism and genocide in all forms.

Peace.

UPDATE: This post was written a few years ago, so I apologize for not addressing the intersection between sexual violence and genocide (as I do in later posts).  Please follow the links below to read MUST-READ articles about the myths and lies of “Thanksgiving.”

1. A Day to Give Thanks?

2. The Original Occupation: Native Blood & the Myth of Thanksgiving

3.Cooking the History Books: The Thanksgiving Massacre