How Addams Family Values taught me the racist Thanksgiving history I never learned in school

Every Thanksgiving, I recall a song for the holiday. One of the lines is: “Eat us because we’re good and dead…chop off our legs and put them in your mouth.” The legs in question are turkey legs, and the song is from a play performed in the 1993 film Addams Family Values. In the scene, Pugsley Addams, dressed as the main fattened turkey, waves his wings and kicks his legs; kids dressed as smaller turkeys and vegetables prance across the stage. “EAT US,” they croon. That song precedes one of the most memorable Thanksgiving critiques in pop culture.

Addams Family Values follows the engagement and marriage of Uncle Fester to Debbie, the family’s nanny. Debbie (a wonderfully psychotic Joan Cusack) schemes to have Wednesday Addams and Pugsley sent away to Camp Chippewa so they can’t reveal that Debbie is a black widower keen on killing Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and stealing his fortune. The final day of camp includes a Thanksgiving play to honor the “most important day in our shared past.”

This line alone indicates our society’s preference for historical fables that gloss over genocide, instead emphasizing whiteness over issues like emancipation, achieved civil rights, or voting equality.

Wednesday plays Pocahontas leading a group of Indigenous people, played by campers with disabilities, campers of color, and campers who are not conventionally attractive. They stand on stage across from the Pilgrims sitting at a long table—all played by campers who are white and blonde, and ooze with economic privilege.

Wednesday deviates from the script. As Pocahontas, she rejects the Pilgrims’ offer to feast with them and delivers an iconic speech.

“You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation...

Her words weighed like rocks in my stomach. The scene reverberated in my mind long after the movie finished.

I was eight when Addams Family Values premiered, but I first watched the movie on television when I was in junior high. By then, my school’s history classes had taught me that Thanksgiving was a holiday founded on “brotherhood” between the Pilgrims and Indigenous peoples. I knew that Indigenous people died because of diseases introduced by the European settlers, but teachers always reiterated that this was “no fault of the settlers.”

I never quite connected with Thanksgiving. I never quite understood why we had to give thanks at this appointed time (shouldn’t we be thankful every day?). It is my least favorite holiday, though it was once rich with my family’s traditions. My father prepared the turkey the night before, and the following day, we woke up and skipped breakfast to make sure we were our hungriest for dinner. We worked in concert to cook the side dishes, and every year, my mother and I set the table together and had the same conversation about our missing fancy silverware. The meal was accompanied by embarrassing stories from my parents, and concluded with a round of UNO that lasted for three hours (no one would allow anyone else to win).

Despite having no real love for the holiday, I clung to it because it was something I was supposed to do with my family and the rest of the country.

Then I watched Addams Family Values.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that Wednesday had alluded to something much bigger than what any teacher had ever told me. As I mulled over her speech in my mind, one sentence stood out among the rest: “My people will have pain and degradation.”

The words sunk into my body and shredded the veil of my indoctrinated reality. I thought of several images I had been unable to process in the past: Statues of Native Americans in cigar stores. The commercial featuring a Native American man crying a single tear as garbage littered the landscape. Uniformed Native children standing outside of boarding schools. Textbook passages about the Trail of Tears that my teachers conveniently skipped over.

I dug further into these images, and I was stunned to finally realize that my “truths” were lined with others’ suffering. I had been taught a whitewashed version of Pilgrim-Native interactions and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Growing up, my parents and grandparents did their part to teach me about my Black history. I was far too young for some of the books they showed me, with their images of horrifically scarred Black bodies and detailed passages describing conditions of crowded slave ships. I knew what the Middle Passage had done to Black people well before it was taught in class. I’d always known our crooked history as slaves in the early United States.

While I was struggling against educators who were whitewashing parts of slave history in the United States, they had already erased the history of Indigenous peoples from the textbooks.

My own ignorance kept me from considering Native people’s history beyond what my teachers taught me.

After Wednesday gives her speech, the other outcasts chase the Pilgrims from the table, set fire to the stage decorations, and terrorize members of the audience. I cheered. It was cinematic catharsis for me. I was vicariously reaping righteous revenge against the popular and the privileged. While the Thanksgiving set burns, Gary calls out, “Children, stop it! You’re destroying my text!” But the play is problematic for several reasons. The dialogue reeks of racist ideology. Gary whitewashes Thanksgiving in preference of historical inaccuracies that remove Pocahontas’s contribution, positions the Pilgrims as white saviors, and focuses on a more convenient timeline. It is not unlike the majority of annual Thanksgiving reenactments that occur in America.

While Wednesday's rebellion is not without some problematic imagery of its own, Addams Family Values ruined a racist, whitewashed text that had been taught to millions of children like me by exposing more strange fruit from our country’s dark past.

Every Thanksgiving since then, I have watched the film and the play’s significance has amplified. In the shadow of our current presidential administration, Wednesday’s speech rings in my ears louder than ever. Her words and subsequent rebellion are an allegory for modern America. Reflected in them are the truth that all non-white, non-able bodied, non-binary people are threatened by vile racism, sexism, misogyny, and transphobia. As a Black woman, my future is in jeopardy.

How then should we celebrate a day that represents historical genocide and mourning for other humans? The more times I watch Wednesday Addams allude to the fate of my fellow brown brothers and sisters, the more unwilling I am to help preserve the hateful history of tyrants. I can find my joy in the other 364 days of the year. I do not need to celebrate a holiday that was never for me in the first place.

Instead, I will mourn with Indigenous peoples and honor their dead. I will stand with them when bulldozers encroach upon their culture and speak up when those in power attempt to erase their history. It is time to destroy the text of misguided white men. Now more than ever, it is our time to (re)write history.

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