Dear BK Readers,
I was around ten years old when I first learned that the meaning and pronunciation of a word can change through public consensus.
I was talking to my grandfather at a Thanksgiving gathering about civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois. I had a book report due, and I was excited to talk about what I knew of him. I even prided myself for pronouncing his name correctly, the French way, “Doo-bwah.” But my grandfather interjected while I was talking and said, “It’s Doo-Boys.”
My grandfather was born in 1928. Both he and my grandmother had 4-year college degrees-- a tremendous accomplishment for Black folks at that time. My grandfather was one of the most knowledgeable, well-read people I knew. But about this, I was sure he was wrong.
“No, grandpa, the correct pronunciation is ‘Doo-bwah,’” I said with confidence.
And he replied, “W.E.B Dubois pronounced his name ‘Doo-Boys,’ so that is how you should pronounce it. We give words life and meaning by how we use them. Words are transitory. So they can change and evolve with geography and over time.”
That lesson stuck with me to this day. It’s the reason why what we know as “awful,” used to mean “awesome;” why “Kosciuszko Street” (pronounced Ko-shuz-ko) is pronounced in Brooklyn correctly as “Kah-zi-ah-sko;” and why “ain’t,” formerly not a word was formally added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1961.
My friend Steve was one of those people you'd meet one time, and he would remember something cursory about you, like your birthday, to let you know he's paying attention. Attentiveness and acknowledgement was his love language. Every birthday, if I didn’t hear from anybody else, I would always hear from Steve with a “Happy Birthday” text, even though years and years would pass between the times I would see him.
One year in late November, I returned the good vibes with a nice text to Steve: “Happy Thanksgiving!” I wrote. He answered, “You mean, Happy Thanks-Taking?” When I didn’t respond, he followed up with another text, explaining, “I’m not celebrating white men stealing from and killing Indigenous people, and you shouldn’t either!”
I wasn’t going to argue with him. He wasn’t entirely wrong. And whether he celebrated Thanksgiving or not, that was his business.
The following year, I adjusted my message to Steve and wrote, “Happy Indigenous People’s Day!” He responded, “Did you finally stop celebrating that fake Thanksgiving?” I answered, “No.”
I haven’t received a birthday message from Steve since.
Steve, like millions of people in America today, has little tolerance for intolerance. In fact, "cancel culture" is the name of his #1 game: Halloween is "The Day of Devil Worshipers." Christmas is not the day Christ was born but "the day Capitalism was born." And Independence Day is "The 4th of Ju-LIE." But those are just the big ticket items. He's in active opposition to 75% of the people in the public eye for some big or small thing they've once said or done.
And if you aren’t careful what you say to him and aren't down with his point of view, he will cancel you too.
I also believe in canceling many things connected to America’s racist, sexist and homophobic past (and present). But where do you draw the line when the absolute nature of canceling leaves no room for nuance, an acknowledgment of the good parts, a productive discussion or… opportunity for change?
Thanksgiving for my family has always meant the one time out of the year to come together and show gratitude; to humble ourselves, to pray as a collective and ... to eat lots of good food prepared with loving hands!
As a kid, my aunt Vivian (rest her soul) would spend days prior to Thanksgiving preparing a feast of at least 50 different dishes. She would go over the top! Turkey, beef, pork, chicken and seafood; two different kinds of mac-n-cheeses, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce and baked bread, a dozen vegetables and at least 5 different kinds of desserts.
It was the one time of the year I got to play with every single last one of my cousins, hug all of my aunts and uncles, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, together in one place. Before eating, we would gather around the food, and in round-robin fashion, share at least one thing we were grateful for that year. It was also the time we played games as a family and laughed until our stomachs hurt. It was a wonderful tradition that always left my soul and my belly full!
For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving has become the one, universal time out of the year that friends and families make space to be together and show gratitude. In my family-- and I would guess for most other families-- it was the only time you would see certain relatives. Never was there a discussion about Pilgrims nor the destruction of Native Americans. It was literally simply a big family reunion.
So should Thanksgiving be canceled? Some might still say yes. (And that is their business). But I say, instead of canceling it, evolve it!
Instead of not discussing the devastation of this land’s original inhabitants, talk about it! Before picking up a utensil, first acknowledge our native ancestors for their sacrifices and sufferings. Set the example for the children by talking about the real history of Indigenous People. Include the Indigenous ancestors in your prayers, and also give them the thanks!
Grandpa said WE give words meaning. So give it new meaning! Make Thanksgiving, in your family, an Indigenous People's day of respect!
Yes, some harmful traditions, institutions and practices absolutely need to go. But canceling is not the answer for everything-- particularly when it brings so many people joy and when the opportunity to evolve into something more meaningful still exists.
This Thanksgiving, continue to gather as a family. Continue to lift each other up with laughter and love. Continue to be safe (because: #StillCOVID).
And, most importantly, continue to give thanks!
C. Zawadi Morris, Publisher and Editor