Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Yes, you receive gifts during Christmas, and Easter was great because you got chocolate candy, but Thanksgiving? Nah, Thanksgiving has always been the gift that keeps on giving.
Thanksgiving is the one place where family, particularly black families, come together to remind themselves about why they’re connected to one another. It's about love and, not so much hate, but let’s say “deferred love” among relatives, play cousins, new girlfriends, old boyfriends and divorced family. It’s about ritual, both keeping and discarding. And it’s about laughter, joy and the ability to look around the house and think, “We do have things to be thankful for after all.”
Here are five things I love about Thanksgiving:
My family is from Texas, and during that post-World War II Great Migration westward that Isabel Wilkerson so beautifully described in The Warmth of Other Suns, about 10 percent of my family, both maternal and paternal, made the decision to leave Dallas, Waco, Temple, Tyler, Fort Worth and all those other Jim Crow Texas towns for the palm tree Jim Crow city of Los Angeles. I was the first California baby born in my family, but the Texas roots meant that we did everything as if we were still eating Blue Bell Ice Cream and drinking Big Red soda.
And that’s where we come to dressing. My black family doesn’t speak the language of those who say “stuffing,” no matter what your definition. We don’t care that some cookbook you read said that stuffing is the matter you put in the bird, and dressing is what you do when you don’t cook it inside the bird; it is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And we’re damn serious about how wrong it is. Hell, even Stephen Colbert, who is from South Carolina, did a bit on it.
He was correct. If you come to Thanksgiving asking for “stuffing” instead of dressing, you will be asked to leave. Obviously, you are a person with a dodgy background, and we can’t have you around the kids.
I was joking on Facebook that I’m going to buy a bunch of houses, connect up with Airbnb and start a chain called Grandma’s Homes. Grandma’s Homes would each replicate what it’s like visiting your grandma on Thanksgiving. You’d walk into the house, and playing on a record player purchased in December 1940 would be a just barely audible Mahalia Jackson singing "Precious Lord." When you sat down on the plastic “good couch” to watch television, there would only be about three channels available to watch; of course, no cable or DirecTV, but two of the channels would feature the Rev. T.D. Jakes preaching 24-7. There would be 1,000 bootleg Tyler Perry videos available to be played on the 1985 vintage VCR for your enjoyment.
In my Grandma’s Home franchise, random closets would contain 1,000 fitted sheets, quilts from 1856 and monogrammed towels galore. In each bathroom, there would be unlimited round balls of soap, fragranced lotions and bath salts. In the fridge, nothing but comfort food. Each bed would be so soft that you could sleep for 20 hours with no problem. And every 30 minutes I’d have a random grandma come in and ask you, “Did you eat, baby?” Oh, and every crystal doorknob would be loose, and no door would shut completely.
I’m gonna be a billionaire.
Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of holidays for black uncles. Why? Because Thanksgiving is the one time when the uncle who got too drunk at the New Year’s Eve/Bid Whist Until 4 in the Morning Party—“and he done fell out with his triflin’ self”—is finally let back into the family’s good graces. Plus, most black uncles, including yours truly, are somewhat a mix of funny and crazy.
My late Uncle Nate, who was the epitome of the rollingest of rolling stones, used to stroll into Thanksgiving hours late, wearing a powder-blue, triple-breasted pimp suit, with, as my otherwise very religious grandmother liked to say, “a dodgy heifer on his arm.” As a 10-year old, I thought it was great, because where else could you get that mix of street and Scripture sitting at one table? Oh, the stories he’d tell …
Speaking of stories, Thanksgiving is a storyteller’s treasure trove. And nothing spurs more stories than talking about the family tree. I’ve always joked that black family trees are written in chalk and not ink, and Thanksgiving is where we prove it. When someone opens the wooden coffee-table doors, pulls out the photo albums, with the Polaroids spilling out from the edges, and begins asking, “Grandmommy, who’s this?” you know that some new information is about to come to the fore. And none of that history will have government names attached to them.
“That’s Aunt [pronounced Ain’t] Henrietta, but we called her Tar ’cause she once stepped in a bucket of tar when she was about 10. She was Big Pappa’s second daughter by his third wife. Now, she was named after Big Momma Johnson’s baby, cousin Henny. She was that funny-colored woman with the freckles. She was real fair, and she went by Baby. Now, lemme tell you about her … ”
Seriously, no joke, I’m known by my great-aunt Bethy as “Baby’s oldest baby,” meaning my mother is Baby and I’m her oldest baby. That’s black folks’ family code, and Thanksgiving is where you’re supposed to commit all the connections and secret family nicknames to memory so you can pass them along through the generations.
For the most part, you can’t get away from your kin, although, like most folks, I do my damnedest to keep a healthy distance for 364 days of the year. For those of you who don’t, God bless you. But Thanksgiving is the one time where family and the love of family, and the love of food (and the traditions passed along through that food), are what’s important.
Love everyone, everybody, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.