It’s that most special time of year: Thanksgiving, a holiday commemorating English settlers being welcomed to North America by the American Indians they’d ultimately decimate in the greatest known display of ingratitude. (Thanks for all the corn and fish, here are some smallpox blankets and gun-fueled massacres!) Nevertheless, it's the most American holiday, a time to give thanks for the land we live in, regardless of our race or creed.
This year, following the horrific attacks in Paris which left well over 100 dead, many Republican and some Democratic politicians have responded, just in time for Thanksgiving, by proposing anti-democratic, divisive measures they argue will guard against such attacks happening on American soil.
These exclusionary responses show an ignorance of two aspects of American history: the value we’ve hoped to place on being welcoming and inclusive to all “your tired, your poor,” and the shameful consequences that have historically followed when the nation failed in its ideals. But those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and the best antidote to another embarrassing episode like the Japanese internment camps is making sure we all learn more about the trauma caused by these lapses in the so-called American way.
As author Celeste Ng tweeted, “I grew up w/ books on internment like FAREWELL TO MANZANAR and JOURNEY TO TOPAZ, thanks to my mom. Maybe they should be required reading?”
Maybe so! For Thanksgiving, here are 10 more books about the most shameful episodes in America’s past, to remind us all how carefully we have to guard against backsliding into divisiveness and hate. On Thanksgiving, of all holidays, let’s give thanks for a country that aspires to be, and should be, full of equal opportunity for everyone.
No-No Boy by John Okada
University of Washington Press
Okada himself was interned, with his family, at a camp in Idaho during World War II. He volunteered to serve in the American military, ending his detainment. No-No Boy, considered the first Japanese-American novel, draws heavily from his experiences, but tells the story of a young man who responded "no" to whether he'd vow loyalty to the U.S. and whether he'd enlist in the military. The novel powerfully explores the devastating fall-out of the internment both directly on the lives of the Japanese Americans involved and through the division it planted within the community itself.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Based on her mother's experiences, Otsuka's debut follows a single Japanese-American family from their California home to a Utahan internment camp and back. The four family members are unnamed, but deeply personal; you can feel the confusion and outrage and longing of each as their normal life is stripped away. Even when they return, nothing can ever be quite the same.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
It's all too easy and comfortable for Americans today to gloss over the horrors of slavery, but Jones's historical novel dives right into the heart of them, both physical and emotional. A tale of black and white slave-holders, and the people they owned, The Known World gives new meaning to the truism "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Jones shows how little the good intentions of an owner mattered when an entire system rested on dehumanization and total control over another.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
If there's any American historical travesty most people are compelled to read about, it's slavery, but it's all too clear that some remain ignorant of the horrors of the institution (perhaps willfully so). Beloved, which follows Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery only to face the choice of killing her baby daughter or allowing her to be taken back into bondage, plumbs the psychological toll of enslavement as profoundly as any account.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
If you have managed to make it past high school without reading Invisible Man, don't waste another minute. If you have read it, read it again! This novel paints a stylized rendition of the Jim Crow dystopian America through which black Americans struggled to make their way long after the end of the Civil War. It's a raw cry of torment and anger that lays bare every inch of the injustices and indignities thrown at black people during the pre-Civil Rights era. And if you've been following the #BlackLivesMatter protests, you'll see that these grievances never really went away.
Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy
Speaking of incredibly exclusionary and inhumane things the American government has done, remember the Trail of Tears? If not -- or if you could stand to brush up on this particularly horrific piece of history at all -- Glancy, who is of Cherokee descent, dove deep in this gut-wrenching novel of the trail, told through a multitude of voices.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Long after the infamous Trail of Tears, the marginalization of American Indians has never really abated. In The Round House, an Indian woman is raped on a North Dakota reservation, but her attacker is white -- and therefore can't be prosecuted by the tribal courts. Though other technical paths exist to possibly charge the rapist, the woman's position as an American Indian on a reservation leaves her exceptionally vulnerable and neglected by the modern justice system. Erdrich powerfully shows the traumatic fallout for the woman, her son, and the community in this wrenching novel.
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
This isn't the first time extremist violence rooted in other parts of the world has led to bigotry and xenophobia in the United States. In this novel, Bosnian writer Hemon brings to life the events surrounding the mysterious death of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish man, at the house of the chief of police in Chicago in 1908. The overwrought terror of anarchist conspiracies that ensued put Jewish immigrants in particular under an unfair light of suspicion. Hemon's haunting double narrative draws out the parallels between this tragedy and the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
There may be no more timely book right now than Hamid's provocative novel about a professional Pakistani-American man who becomes distrustful of America's manipulation of his homeland. His alienation only grows after September 11, when he can't help but feel under a microscope due to his heritage. Ultimately, the suspicion he senses toward him pushes him toward a new, more dangerous politics.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
Alfred A. Knopf
Calls for deportation of undocumented immigrants still dominate presidential debates, so clearly, in 2015, discrimination and inhumane treatment of Latino immigrants remains a deeply entrenched problem. Henríquez's novel glimpses into the lives of many -- undocumented, naturalized and every status in between -- exploring their heartbreaking struggles to be accepted as Americans and simply as people.