Two autumns ago, I attended a Thanksgiving celebration organized by refugees and other community members here in Milwaukee. We celebrated the arrival of new neighbors who had escaped from dangerous situations. We shared traditions with people who had not experienced the holiday before, and we ate food from all over the world.
As a part of the festivities, someone had printed out coloring pages for the children. The pictures featured white pilgrims in buckle shoes and Native Americans in feather headdresses smiling pleasantly while sharing roasted poultry. The fable of innocent pilgrims fleeing religious persecution and breaking bread with their new Native American friends has been the dominant story of Thanksgiving for those of us whose families have celebrated the holiday all our lives. These stories and traditions can feel good, but inaccurate history encourages us to repeat our mistakes. We all have a responsibility to balance the comfort of tradition with an honest reckoning of history.
We often forget to apply context to the things we do every year because traditions can be comforting. Last week at the tree-lighting ceremony, the police arrested Nate Hamilton, Jennifer Epps-Addison, and four other black leaders for drumming and singing at Red Arrow Park. As many know, Nate is the brother of Dontre Hamilton, who died at the hands of the police in April 2014 in the same park. The Hamilton family has reminded our community over and over that we cannot continue with business as usual. Before the next death happens, we must choose to change how we live.
In the days before the arrests, I like many others had been watching and reading the news about attacks in Lebanon, France, and elsewhere. In one online video, a father tells his young son to declare to a world permeated with violence and death, “But we have flowers.” The son asks if the flowers and candles are meant to protect them. The father says yes. The flowers, of course, are a metaphor for empathy, love, understanding and compassion, some of the most transformative forces in our world. These forces help us understand why a family would flee a war zone to reach safety, or why another family would keep trying to prevent the next tragedy a year and a half after the death of their son and brother.
Keep scrolling in your news feed or reading the paper, and you will see others who have chosen to mark their holiday season with fear rather than compassion—politicians who have decided to scapegoat refugees, or neighbors who have decided that a tree-lighting tradition is more important than preventing the next death.
Each of us can think of a time when another person has helped us escape to safety. Perhaps it was a bad job, an abusive home; perhaps we were refugees. Each of us can also think of a time when we needed someone to stand with us, but they turned us away, scapegoated, ignored, judged or shunned us because we made them uncomfortable. We did not fit into their polished history.
When our neighbors value tradition over honesty, we explain that we are trying to create a safer world for their children. When our leaders and musicians are arrested for making music, we remember the little boy who asked about flowers and what will protect him. There is a way to celebrate the holidays while explaining to our children what happened to Dontre and continues to happen every day in this country. There is a way to welcome refugees to the United States while acknowledging that most of us live on stolen land.
As we enjoy good food with our families and friends this year, many of us are reminded that we live in relative safety. This Thanksgiving, I will think of my great-grandfather who slept in a chicken coop in central Wisconsin as a teenager, escaping a home where he did not have enough food. I will remember that my family once lived in 53206, but moved away and never came back, complicit in white flight 100 years after arriving in the United States as economic refugees.
When tragedy, disrespect, and dehumanization greet us, there are lessons to be learned from those who respond with fierce love. We surely have the capacity to grow and sit together at one table for the first time.