By Tommy Airey, above with his nephews in Southern California
The day after an 18-year-old white boy livestreamed his mass murder spree in the only supermarket of a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, I was hosting another men’s group on zoom. We were sharing early memories of when our tears and tenderness were not honored by adults in our lives. One participant said something that stoked vigorous nodding from the rest of us. “It really wasn’t what I was told,” he said, “It was what I wasn’t told.” We were forced to fill in the gaps of all those silences. We came up with our own scripts saying we were not good enough and would never really be loved unless we met a certain standard of “success.”
The silence is a slow trauma that seeds deep feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness. It tills the soil of the gun culture, the rape culture, the corporate culture, the cancel culture. The silence sustains the default dominant culture, what Dr. Willie Jennings calls “the pedagogy of the plantation.” Unless we are intentionally taught otherwise, we are trained up to possess, master and control everything we come across. In America, men are the main characters, the owners of the plantation. It’s not just the passionate men with their man caves and their big trucks and their unregulated firearms—but also the passive men who pride themselves on staying safe, stoic, nice and neutral, above the fray, hiding their feelings as they over-function to “provide for their families.”
What we are suffering in this late stage of racial capitalism is what happens when those who are incessantly socialized into being the main characters fail in their mastery mission, or do not receive the special recognition they have been scripted into believing they deserve, or feel like they are being replaced on their mission. Some men shoot up a crowd. Some commit suicide or succumb to addictive substances. A lot more double down on their legacy projects and manipulate those assigned to be their supporting actors—especially women and children and people of color—so they can somehow, some way, stay on top.
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The pedagogy of the plantation is pervasive. But Americans are taught to believe that supremacy is in the past—and secluded to the South. This mythology, maintained by the main characters, is dismantled by Imani Perry in her recent release South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon Line to Understand the Soul of America. I started listening to the audiobook version as I drove from Southern California to Detroit the week after nineteen cops posted up outside an elementary school classroom for an hour while nineteen children were murdered by a main character in Uvalde, Texas. Perry, a Professor of African-American studies at Princeton, tells the story of the United States through Southern places. The South has always borne the brunt of the shame, but only when we are honest about how central the region is to all of us, as Perry is in this magnificent work, will we be able to confront the shared habits of the past—that are still present with us.
I listened to Perry describe the South as a place where there are “gallons of sorrow in the soil” just as I whizzed by the off-ramp in Southern Utah that Mormon settlers named “Dixie.” When they invaded Paiute land at the start of the Civil War, the white men planted cotton. They were literally attempting to create their own plantations. They slapped “Dixie” on just about everything that needed naming, including the local college they called Dixie State. Their mascot was Rebel Rodney and he waved the Confederate flag. Dixie Drive in St. George, Utah is a parable for the ways white people have plastered an entire continent with the pedagogy of the plantation.
Perry portrays a spiritual battle between what she calls the god of the masters, who anoints white men to possess, master and control, and the god of the slaves, whose simple message is that everyone is a child of the divine—nothing more, nothing less. This battle born in the South, soaks American history into the present, but also competes on the pages of the Christian scriptures. There is a Solomon god who sits on a throne, scripting the pedagogy of the plantation, telling certain folks to submit and calling others “abominations.” But there is also a minority report, taking cues from a sabbath God who sets the captives free. I call it a conspiracy, coming from the Latin meaning “breathing with.” The sabbath God breathes with those that Solomon buries the basement. Despite what those who worship the white Jesus say, Solomon and Sabbath are not the same schizophrenic god. We must choose which One we will commit our lives to conspiring with.
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Choosing the side of Sabbath is both sacred and subversive. This choice was the flint that sparked me to facilitate a few intimate zoom circles for men of conscience getting confessional about our shame, rage, fear, competitiveness, entitlement and loneliness. We are soaked in the Solomon story and it is coming out sideways. What we are learning, though, is that the opposite of the pedagogy of the plantation is not the passivity of playing it safe. Instead, it is an equally emotionally expressive manhood that is present, playful, tender, truthful, vulnerable, open-hearted, humble and direct. When we actively disobey the god of the masters, we drop the distancing and entitlement and learn how to emotionally connect with the women and children in our lives—and other men too.
Instead of possessing, mastering and controlling our environment, we commit our lives to belonging to, feeling with and nurturing the hell out of everything in our path. Our planet is trying to survive a literal hell produced by the pedagogy of the plantation, a supremacy story dictated by race, class and gender. Toni Morrison once urged her audience to work at their friendships with the same seriousness that they brought to their studies in school. In the absence of support systems, all we have is each other, so we must study how to become supporting actors who belong to, feel with and nurture the hell out of our friends, spouses, children, strangers and the non-human world too.
The late great bell hooks started her classic on men, masculinity and love by drawing on the work of Barbara Deming. She wrote that the reason that men are so violent is that they know, deep down, that they are living a lie. They are in a rage rut because they are acting out the main character myth—and they do not know how to break the cycle. In fact, they do not know an alternative. They are stuck with the same old story: the pedagogy of the plantation. Men long for love and we are homesick for the truth—and the truth is that real love does not come from being the main character on a mission, but from belonging to a beloved community of kindreds.
I, too, know that I have been living a lie. I, too, long for love. This is one reason why I am still rooted in biblical faith, a spiritual tradition whose strength, according to Dr. Cornel West is its “unstoppable predilection for alternatives grounded in the present.” When Jesus subverted greatness, he was specifically speaking to the men, not the marginalized. He summoned them to stop self-promoting and become “servants,” a Greek word that literally meant “those who kick up the dust.” The alternative to the plantation is a greatness that gets dirty for the sake of everyone else’s dignity. Jesus also told the men they must become “slaves,” so they can learn to bind themselves to the destiny of others. Greatness is not about guns, grit and glory. It is about having the guts to grieve—and give up our lives for those society considers the least.
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I am convinced that the model for subverting main character syndrome is what Gloria Anzaldua calls “the New Mestiza.” Men can learn from dark-skinned women who, for generations, have navigated the many different terrains of American culture by code-switching and speaking multiple languages. These women are equipped to survive in a context constantly stalked by white male power. They consistently surrender notions of safety and what is familiar in order to protect and serve their communities.
Black women, Indigenous women, Immigrant women cross the river and keep walking as they chart their own path through the wilderness of American culture, often without the protection and validation of institutions and organizations. They know that is not enough to simply stand on the opposite side of the river and protest. They know that it is not spiritually sustainable to define themselves on the basis of what they are reacting against. “The possibilities are numerous,” Anzaldua wrote forty years ago, “once we decide to act and not react.”
When white folks really start to act, when we pivot from deconstructing to reconstructing, we will take our cues from dark-skinned women who embody the wisdom, courage and clarity we need to consistently have “the talk” with our sons, grandsons and nephews too.
We will warn the white boys in our lives that just about every powerful adult in America, from police to parents to pastors to politicians to professors and teachers, both conservative and liberal, pledges allegiance to the pedagogy of the plantation, measuring worth and success on the basis of a supremacist storyline that puts white boys on a pedestal and puts pressure on everyone else to possess, master and control too.
We will call bullshit on this spiritually bankrupt story and spell out its destructive implications.
We will explain to our sons, grandsons and nephews—over and over again—that the pedagogy of the plantation poisons their souls while it destroys the lives and livelihoods of supporting actors all over the world.
We will unsilence the gaps and fill them in with a compelling narrative much better known in Black and Indigenous communities who believe in a Creator who passionately yearns for a world protected and served by supporting actors who belong to, feel with and nurture the web of life.
We will teach them a new mindset and skill set, an alternative spirituality that seeks to cultivate virtues like vulnerability, courage, compassion and a robust capacity for tenderness.
We will dig far below gun reform and get to the root of our issues.
We will gear our lives towards a completely different goal.
We will undergo a radical revolution of values that prioritizes every single person over profit motives and property rights.
We will do this, or our society will shrivel—like a fig tree that refuses to bear fruit.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.