As part of The Root’s ongoing efforts to satisfy the curiosity of our Caucasian constituency, we have decided to give you a peek inside some of the cultural customs of black America. One of the oldest and most heralded traditions of the African-American community is the ceremony known as Black Thanksgiving.
Black Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the colonization and genocide of Native Americans. Ours is a semireligious ritual based on food, family and sweet potato pie. It is an annual autumnal mini family reunion without matching purple T-shirts or barbecue smoke in your eye.
It is impossible for one to fully understand Black Thanksgiving without knowing the cast of characters who will be present when we join together to break cornbread. The following is a list of people who will appear at all Black Thanksgivings.
The first thing you must know about the black family tradition is that the nomenclature assigned to relatives has nothing to do with the traditional definitions assigned by white people to their family members. For white people, an “aunt” refers to a woman who is the sister of their mother or father. This does not hold true in the black community.
In the black community, an aunt is any woman more than 15 years older than you who has been around the family for more than 10 years. Every lady on the street where you grew up is an aunt. All women on the usher board at your place of worship are aunts. And it is pronounced “aww-went,” not “ant.”
Sometimes your actual aunt doesn’t qualify as an aunt. If your grandparents had a female child late in life, she is still the sister of your mother or father, but if she is close to your age, then according to the black definition, she becomes your cousin. An aunt who is very old can even become a grandmother. I know it’s a little complicated for the Caucasian mind, but you’ll learn.
As it relates to Black Thanksgiving, aunts have a special role. The kitchen is the domain of the aunt, and aunts are the only people allowed to make macaroni. I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible. According to Macaronians 2:23, Jesus has blessed all aunts with the gift of all elbow- and cheese-related pasta dishes. It is a substantial part of the phenomenon that we call “Black Girl Magic.”
Uncles are defined in the same way that aunts are listed in the Universal Book of Black Families. All deacons are uncles. All black fathers’ homeboys are uncles. Uncles know how to fix alternator belts while puffing on Benson & Hedges.
At Black Thanksgiving, one of the uncles will pray. Usually it is the uncle who prays the longest. The pre-Thanksgiving prayer is one of the longest prayers in the African tradition, second only to the altar call at a pastor’s anniversary.
Uncles will always bring a bottle of brown liquor. You might not see it, but trust me, it’s there. If you’re wondering what particular brand of whiskey or cognac they will bring, I just told you. All uncles drink the same brand of liquor:
Cousins are all the relatives within 15 years of your age. Anyone older is either an aunt or an uncle. Younger ones are nieces and nephews. There is nothing that brings a smile to a black person’s face like seeing a cousin. I imagine it’s how white people feel when they eat toast. All white people love toast. You can call it a bagel or English muffin, but that shit is all toast to us, and y’all love it.
Cousins are best friends, confidants and protectors. A cousin will fight for you, even if you are wrong. A cousin will make fun of you but punch a random non-family member in the throat for saying the same thing. A cousin will let you wear their clothes to the club and give you your first drink, which they stole from your uncle.
At Black Thanksgiving, cousins perform the perfunctory duties. There is a cousin chain of command that eventually ends at the macaroni level that goes as follows:
Level I: Kool-Aid-making
Level II: cups, napkins, plates and plastic forks
Level III: bringer of aluminum foil
Level III: fixer of plates
Level IV: allowed in the kitchen
The rest of the people at Black Thanksgiving are an eclectic mix of random attendees, including:
The newly woke person: This could be an aunt, an uncle, an invitee or a cousin who just got out of jail. They will tell everyone how they are vegan 1,292 times. They inject white supremacy into every topic. They will ask if the collards have pork in them. They don’t eat pork. … but they will eat those collard greens.
The saditty relative: There is always one aunt who can’t cook shit, but she arrives in her new Benz and she just earned her Ph.D. in international superiority studies. She is going to bring a store-bought dessert from an artisanal bakery and wonder why no one is eating it. Because … Aunt Linda’s sweet potato pies, nigga.
The religious one: Are you saved? No, white people, I don’t mean “saving money.” This is not a financial question; it is a questioning of your existential status. “Saved” is short for “saved, sanctified and giving 10 percent of your income to a man who drives a car better than yours.” You need to have a definite answer to this because you will be quizzed on this by at least one person in attendance.
The drunk uncle: This is not a thing at Black Thanksgiving. We don’t judge our uncles like that. All uncles are either drunk or saved. We don’t like labels, even on our liquor.
The white girl: There is always one cousin with a white girlfriend (usually the “newly woke” relative). She’s usually very nice and will always bring a dish. It will end up beside the saditty relative’s cheesecake. It’s not that we’re prejudiced against white food; it’s just that we question the cleanliness of white people’s kitchens. After all, y’all kiss your dogs in the mouth, so your germ tolerance is higher than ours. We know that the Bible says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, so shalt there be a Becky,” so we’re used to it.
The rest of the invitation list needs no explanation:
the single aunt who lives with your other single aunt
the grandparent who cusses
the co-worker who doesn’t have family around, so your family adopted him
the badass nephew who finds your uncle’s bottle
the family member who had to work on Thanksgiving who is the only one authorized to fix a plate
the emo cousin
Every family has a version of all of these people. But when they come together for the feast of Black Thanksgiving, we all become one.
Until the fight starts.
But Black Thanksgiving is as much about the arguments as it is about the love. It is about tradition. It is about family. It is the only day of the year where we have a respite from the world around us and we gather to celebrate our delicious blackness without worrying about white people coming around.
Except for that one white girl and her shitty tuna casserole.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Too much brown liquor. But I have an excuse:
I’m an uncle now.