Two years ago this month (June 16, 2015) 9 Blacks were massacred in a church in Charleston, South Carolina by a racist white terrorist Dylan Roof.
As Black folks we must constantly remember this date like we must constantly remember the date September 15, 1963 when 4 Black girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama by a white supremacist bombing attack.
Recently, a Black man Kiese Laymon wrote an article based on a conversation he had with his grandmother reflecting back on the Charleston murders.
Laymon said his grandmother who had never talked about the racism she experienced growing-up in the South mentioned about all the work we did to forgive white supremacy, hoping then to be chosen by them and by God. That Black churches have taught us to 'forgive' white people but we learned to 'shame' ourselves. In Laymon's article conversation with his grandmother he stated:
“We will lament the numbers of folks killed in mass murders in the United States. There’s a number for that. We will talk about the numbers of people killed in black-on-black murder. There’s a number for that. We will never talk about the number of unemployed and underemployed hard-working black folks living in poverty. We will never talk about the numbers of black folk in prison for the kinds of nonviolent drug-related offenses my white students commit every weekend. We will never talk about the number of human beings killed by young American military men and women draped in camouflage, or the number of human beings murdered by drones across the world. We will never talk about the specific amount of money this country really owes Grandma and her friends for their decades of unpaid labor. We will never talk about the moral and monetary debt accrued by the architects of this Empire. There are shameful numbers for all of that, too.”
Indeed, from my perspective I fully agree with Brother Laymon that we as Black folks for the most part don’t want to see, hear, or talk about the atrocities of the slavery ‘Black Holocaust’ and the continued racist oppression we face.
Yes, we feel ashamed when Black enslavement is discussed, in a distorted self-blaming sense we don't want to talk about slavery as though we enslaved ourselves; that we are our own worst enemy, we just want to forget what we've done to ourselves - don't bring it up!
Not only were we told to 'forgive' whites for our enslavement without 'reparations', we want to 'forget' about slavery too. Too many Blacks view our enslavement suffering in America as an embarrassment 'ashamed of it', yet Jews 'honor their suffering' under Hitler's Nazism vowing 'never again' - they are 'empowered' by its remembrance. Unfortunately too many of us feel 'powerless' about our enslaved memory to the point that most of us don't even observe Black History Month.
When the movie 12 Years of a Slave was out in theaters I asked many Black folks that I know had they saw the movie, some said they didn’t want to see it because it would make them angry, but most who said they didn’t want to see it did not give a reason, for me the unspoken reason was shame!
Long before Brother Laymon’s talk with his Grandmother and long before the movie 12 Years of a Slave, I grew up in the 1960’s (Detroit, MI) around adult Black southern migrants - parents, relatives, and their friends who never discussed their experiences growing up in the racist ‘Jim Crow’ south. I learned about their lives in the South through the Civil Rights struggle exposed on television news coverage.
Like my parents generation who covered-up their Black experiences, most folks of my generation that I know admit they haven't talked to their children and grandchildren about their Black experiences; have not really discussed racism, thus 'shame non-communication' socialization continues which often leaves our children 'racially ambivalent'.
Often today when I visit family, relatives, and friends and bring up any discussion of racist Black oppression, folks get immediately uncomfortable and defensive, some will even say I don’t want to talk about ‘that Black stuff’, some are even harsher saying I don’t want to hear that ‘Black shit’.
I told them that you won’t hear white people say I don’t want to hear that 'white stuff' when it comes to their issues; you won’t hear Middle Easterners say I don’t want to hear that ‘Arab shit’.
This attitude of 'not trying to hear no Black stuff' is shameful; shame in the sense of not addressing the varied problematic socioeconomic issues that we face due to racism; shame of not being responsible to ourselves; shame of not doing what we should be doing.
Unconsciously, Black folks are ashamed ‘covering up' - avoiding discussing their experiences with racism in the past and present; the roots of the word shame derives from a word that means ‘to cover’.
Black shame is similar to wanting to hide our faces behind our hands, wearing a mask desperately trying to 'escape' from dealing with racism or 'pretending' that everything is okay. The more powerful our experiences of shame are, the more we need to hide those aspects from others and even from ourselves.
A part of who we are as a Black person or how I feel must now be disowned, silenced, or hidden at all cost, and I essentially become estranged from a part of myself.
At the heart of Black shame is a feeling that we are exposed either to others or to ourselves. No other feeling is more disturbing or destructive to the self. Black shame is stressful, it's 'inner-enslaving' and toxic!
Black enslavement in America was dehumanizing leaving a legacy of an internal sense of inferiority, inadequacy, and unworthiness. This shameful legacy has led us to feel as though our whole self is flawed, bad, and subject to exclusion.
Malcolm X once said the greatest crime of slavery was the white man taught Negroes to hate themselves; this self-hatred caused the ‘toxic shame syndrome’, he expounded on this hate induced shame:
"In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can't hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree. You can't hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can't hate Africa and not hate yourself. You show me one of these people over here who has been thoroughly brainwashed and has a negative attitude toward Africa, and I'll show you one who has a negative attitude toward himself. You can't have a positive attitude toward yourself and a negative attitude toward Africa at the same time. To the same degree that your understanding of and attitude toward yourself become positive, you'll find that your understanding of and your attitude toward yourself will also become positive. And this is what the white man knows. So they very skillfully make you and me hate our African identity, our African characteristics. You know yourself that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics. We hated our heads, we hated the shape of our nose, we wanted one of those long doglike noses, you know; we hated the color of our skin, hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, why, we had to end up hating ourselves. And we hated ourselves. Our color became to us a chain - we felt that it was holding us back; our color became to us like a prison which we felt was keeping us confined, not letting us go this way or that way. We felt all of these restrictions were based solely upon our color, and the psychological reaction to that would have to be that as long as we felt imprisoned or chained or trapped by Black skin, Black features, and Black blood, that skin and those features and that blood holding us back automatically had to become hateful to us. And it became hateful to us. It made us feel inferior; it made us feel inadequate made us feel helpless.”
You won’t find 'disorders of shame' as a category in the DSM-5 (the official American manual for mental health diagnoses), and yet shame is probably the biggest single driving cause of most Black psychological problems - an ongoing source influence of 'internalize oppression'.
Excessive feelings of shame are at the heart of much Black psychopathology. It is concealed behind guilt; it fosters low self-esteem; it lurks behind anger; it fuels Black-on-Black violence; it can be disguised as despair and depression; its demoralizing and breeds apathy; it influences addictions and suicides.
As Black people we rarely talk about shame experiences; shame is a difficult emotion to detect, especially as it comes in so many disguises.
Many Black people with shame develop an obsession with becoming someone other than who they are - 'wanting to be white' in some form or fashion. Their entire life becomes a flight from self and a desire to merge with the ideal white image standard by altering themselves. They want to be free from Blackness and embarrassing traits, but can only hope to achieve this by cutting off a part of who they are.
Unfortunately, the distancing solution they are seeking - the problem they are trying to escape are two sides of the same coin. The more they pursue to become other than their Black self, the more they increase their judgment on who they really are. Shame and the pursuit of overcoming shame are thus often one and the same.
The problem is of course that we cannot run away from our past, nor can we heal the wounds of shame by simply trying to run away from our self. Shame will always follow us as our shadow unless we attend to it and address its root cause.
Moreover, Black shame may lead a Black person to make negative attributions about other Blacks that are disguised attempts to restore a positive self-view or hide negative self-perceptions in order to escape shame's self-diminishing effects. Thus a Black person attempts to bolster their own view of themselves by finding flaws in others so that they become the ones who are shameful.
This view of flaws in other Blacks also has collective self-sabotaging consequences; it fosters doubt and distrust that undermines racial 'Unity' preventing us from uniting to struggle for 'political self-determination' and 'economic self-reliance'.
We can continue to choose to be injured victims of our Black 'shame wound' or try to defeat it through a courageous battle that includes psycho-healing: improving our sense of self-esteem, increasing our feelings of worthiness and belonging; fostering greater self-acceptance; and reducing unhealthy reactions to shame such as avoidance, defensiveness, and attacking.
Countering Black shame-based living is the process of transforming daily who one is and how one feels about oneself; it doesn’t come from changing who one is, but rather from truly embracing, knowing, becoming, developing, actualizing, and honoring who one is.