The Recovery Room

By Tommy Airey

After a thirty-month delay, I finally went in for hernia surgery last week. Lindsay hauled me over to the hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan – Detroit’s eastern adjacent suburb. As soon as we crossed Alter Road, everything changed. The mourning turned into mansions. Dr. King gave a speech in the high school gym in Grosse Pointe three weeks before he was assassinated. He talked about the two Americas. Those who grow up in the sunlight of opportunity – and those barely surviving in the fatigue of despair. During the speech, he was shouted down – several times – by white people who did not appreciate some outsider telling them that racism was still a real thing.

The day before my surgery, I drove to the lab in Grosse Pointe to get my pre-surgery blood screening. A Black woman was working the front desk. While I was waiting, an unmasked white man in his seventies walked in asking where to sign in. She pointed to the table and told him he needed to put on a face covering. He looked at me and shook his head, muttering that he had one in his bag. I stared him down. He didn’t sign in. When he found his seat across the room, he looked at me again. I just stared back. We both grew up in the sunlight of opportunity, but I wanted him to know that I would not be signing off on his supremacy story.

Across Jefferson Boulevard from the hospital, the yards of the mansions are lined with election signs promoting the GOP candidate for Secretary of State who got her masters degree in Christian Apologetics from BIOLA and is adamant the 2020 election was stolen. Many signs say, “Vote No on Prop 3,” the reproductive justice measure that got more signatures than any initiative in Michigan history. When we arrived at the hospital on the morning of my surgery, everything was quick and convenient. Parking spaces were abundant and free-of-charge. It was a close walk to the lobby. The surgery wing was a well-oiled machine. I did not wait long to get in.

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Upstream

By Tommy Airey

“There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

Last weekend, I hiked with friends on traditional land of Watlala people, about fifty miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. At the trailhead, there were a half dozen Chinook Salmon swimming in the cold shallow water below. They were traveling upstream, from the Pacific to the Columbia to the Sandy to the Zig Zag to Camp Creek. The females, returning to the place of their birth, were preparing to lay their eggs – and then die four days later. Despite all the dams that have been built, there are still a few of these Beings, so sacred to Native people here, who have the strength to swim against the current, teaching us how to give up our lives for the next generation.  

On my two-hour drive back to the Deschutes River, I was pondering the contrast between Chinook Salmon who swim upstream and those who built the dams, white people conditioned by conformity, always moving with the current, not against it. I was thinking about the white people I know who now refer to “wokeness” as a bad word, as a kind of far-left cult that is extreme and dangerous, existing only to shame white people. The conservative talking points are penetrating the language of white moderates and liberals. Right-wing strategists know what they are doing! Wokeness is the perfect pinata for people unwilling to swim upstream and shed their own whiteness.

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Back It Up

By Tommy Airey

The year George Floyd and I were born, Paul Simon came out with a song called “American Tune.” Simon sung it to the melody of a Medieval Christian hymn. It hummed on the heavy, confusing mood of the country, caught up in the Watergate scandal and the bloody Vietnam conflict. It concludes with these verses.

We come on the ship they call The Mayflower.
We come on the ship that sailed the moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And sing an American tune.

Last week, fifty years later, “American Tune” made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. But this time, it was sung by Rhiannon Giddens, a banjo-playing woman in her forties boasting Black, Native and white ancestry. Simon backed her up on acoustic and she tweaked the lyrics at the end.

We didn’t come here on the Mayflower.
We came on a ship on a blood red moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.

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Supporting Actors

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.”

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A New Song

By Tommy Airey, reposted from Easy Yolk

“What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do.”—Kiese Laymon

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song.”—Psalm 96:1

Thirty years ago, four white cops caught on video beating Rodney King fifty-six times were acquitted in Simi Valley by a jury made up of ten white folks, one Latino and one Asian. In the aftermath, a righteous rage fueled the L.A. Riots. At the time, I was fifty miles south, getting ready for senior prom. Six weeks earlier, our high school basketball team won the CIF sectional championship at the Sports Arena, where the Clippers used to play back in the day. We beat Lynwood, an all-Black squad from south L.A. In our all-white minds, we were getting revenge.

When I was a freshman, we got manhandled by all-Black Manual Arts High School in the state playoffs. They brought a cadre of students and parents down to South Orange County, the metro region with the lowest Black population in the US. Their crowd was small but persistently on point. When they scored or made a stop, everyone in their section of the bleachers would extend their arms out like an alligator and chant in rapid succession, “We love it. We love it. We love it.” As they clapped together, the alligators chomped together. Black excellence completely obliterated our home court advantage.

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A Monarch Migration in March

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

On Fat Tuesday, six days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I drove out of Detroit while it was still dark. For the first two hours, the slipped disk in my upper back was screaming. This thorn in my flesh, this messenger from Satan, was signaling a lack of emotional support in a world collapsing with the 4 C’s: capitalism, climate, covid and conflict. I drove through all four time zones as gas prices sky-rocketed and the stealth BA. 2 variant spread. On the road, in this mess, I was trusting in Something greater than myself, a divine Presence percolating the world with steadfast love and solidarity. This Force does not sit on a throne. It hovers low like a nurturing mother bird and runs fast like an open-hearted, emotionally expressive father figure.

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Divine Dialysis: A 7-Minute Sermon

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.—excerpts from Psalm 51

This week, I read Psalm 51 in the wake of dear friends sharing the details of a sexual assault they experienced. My response was rage. I struggled to tap into tears. I was just so angry. At the perpetrator for what he did. At the police for what they did not do. Lindsay asked me if our friends’ story was triggering my own trauma. I wasn’t sure. I needed to go away to reflect—and sit with this Psalm, attributed to David who was called “a man after God’s own heart.” He was also a sexual predator.

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Abel Still Speaks

By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon (if you are speed-reading)

*Dedicated to Dr. James Perkinson who paradigm-shifted my reading of the Abel story. For more, check out Perkinson’s Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Art, and Empire (2013)

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.—Genesis 4:2b

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!—Genesis 4:8-10

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.—Mark 6:34

“I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.”—Hannah Arendt

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In the ancient world, shepherds tended their flocks on the edge of civilization, on the borderlands, straddling two cultures with the side-eyed and sidelined. Shepherds resisted mass migration to cities, built with resources extracted from somewhere else. What we called “civilization” was sculpted by strong men exploiting the masses. Shepherds were not part of this program. They stayed nomadic, foraging for food, going wherever the grass was growing. Shepherds were dirty people. Outcasts. Their testimony was not trusted in court.

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Born to Bow in Reverence to Each Other

By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon on Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.—Genesis 1:26-27

My spirituality is saturated in the biblical claim that I bear the image of God, that we all bear the royal image of God. Hebrew scribes wrote and edited the book of Genesis after they were captured and exiled to Babylon, an empire that placed “images”—or  statues—of their king in public places to remind people who is supreme. Citizens were supposed to bow whenever they passed by. The Hebrew scribes subverted this human hierarchy of value by crafting their own creation story. The scribes stamped every human Being with the royal image of a God of love and compassion who designed a world without a human hierarchy of value. We are all royalty, born to bow in reverence to each other.

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John Brown Broke Rank

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from social media and his blog Easy Yolk

For centuries, white people from lower economic classes have been hired as police patrol by the white ruling class. White folks have been given guns and badges to exercise unlimited force on enslaved people, poor people of color and dark-skinned immigrant labor. This power is so intoxicating that white people consistently choose to police vulnerable people instead of finding solidarity with them in a common struggle against wealthy white exploiters. Sure, Kyle Rittenhouse shot white protestors. But his mother drove him to Kenosha to police people of color—and protect wealthier white people and their property. Policing people of color remains common practice in classrooms, curriculums, churches, stores and neighborhoods, where white people do not necessarily need guns and badges to demand “others” know their place.  

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