James W. Fowler

The social shaming that Lewis Smedes talked about in yesterday’s blog, produces a culture of shame in some social groups. It takes on a life that is beyond the control of an individual, or even the social group to which she belongs. It can become in-built in generations that follow. James W. Fowler talks of Shame Due to Enforced Minority Status,[1]a form of shame which he suggests has largely been ignored in contemporary literature.[2] The capacity for experiencing shame develops as a child’s self-awareness increases and as the child begins to be aware of its social setting.[3] At around this time:

parents [and carers] transmit the qualities of their own self-esteem as they nurture the children in their care. Sadly, where social discriminations based on minority status have become part of a child’s familial identity, even before venturing forth into the world beyond the family the child will be impacted and will embrace a measure of shame due to enforced minority status.” [4]


“This transmission of parent and familial shame to children is a form of ascribed[5]shame. It has little to do with the personal qualities of the family or their children. It has everything to do with the social environment’s disvaluing of some qualities over which they have little or no control. Most potent among the forms of this type of ascribed shame are the distortions due to socio-economic  class, race, ethnic background, sometimes religion, and – most commonly – gender.[6]

Fowler goes on to recount a story from the first of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to illustrate this point. It “Discloses shame that combines childhood vulnerability with shame due to enforced minority status in terms of race, gender, and social class:”[7]

““What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay …

I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay …

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

What you looking at me for?  …

The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness. The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.

As I watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were,” and I would answer generously, “No, you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.”

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel’s dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn’t hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in the church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke up out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must of been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.

What you looking …

The minister’s wife leaned toward me, her long yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, “I just come to tell you, it’s Easter Day.” I repeated, jamming the words together, “ljustcometotellyouit’sEasterDay,” as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying, “Lord bless the child,” and “Praise God.” My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn’t see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children’s pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I’d have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to- my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I’d get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a busted head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.”[8]

‘Shameful’ can become the underlying self-assessment that holds people in prison. Shame of this nature runs so very deep and ultimately “cannot be healed without attention to issues of economic and political justice, equality, and the effective affirmation of inclusiveness in societies.”[9]

Can we, in any way, talk of the cross, the death of Jesus’, engaging with this sense of a group’s shame which may have become deeply engrained through the generations?

As Christians we believe that the Incarnation of Christ, the Cross and the Resurrection are the central acts of God’s redeeming love. We have found ways to speak about those essential elements of our faith that have brought hope to millions of people over the years. Until recently, we have had little to say about shame, beyond seeing it as something that is allied to guilt, and follows when we know we have done something wrong. What can we say to those who are shamed? What can we say to people who perceive the human condition in very different ways to those our theologians have engaged with in the West? What can we point to in the life and death of Jesus Christ that will assure the shamed of healing and salvation?

[1] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” Abingdon Press, Nashville Tennessee, 1996, p118-121.

[2] Ibid., p121.

[3] More about this in a later blog!

[4] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” p118-119.

[5] There’ll be a later blog about ascribed and acquired/achieved shame as well!

[6] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” p119.

[7] Ibid., p119.

[8] Ibid., p120-121, taken from Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Random House, New York, 1970, p3-6

[9] Ibid., p121.

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