This essay is part of #TheRisingTide4ClimateJustice’s Elephant in the Room series (link): a writing project calling out the institutions and ideas that contribute to environmental environmental injustice within the Birmingham community and across the South.

By Cynthia and Marian Mwenja

Part I: Composting our Collective Shit

Birmingham, Alabama has a history full of incidents we could use to explore ideas of shame, guilt, and restoration. One of the most instructive, however, might be the 1963 church bombing. In looking at this incident, we can clearly see the repercussions for our city as we adhere to dominant U.S. cultural values of blame, shame, and punishment.

Here’s the story we remember: on September 15, 1963, a bomb placed by white supremacist terrorists exploded during Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church, murdering four young girls. The girls have been mourned and memorialized—as they should have been. But our focus on the four little girls has, in many ways, prevented us from addressing the needs of others who were harmed that day.

Here’s the story we aren’t as good at remembering: another girl sustained life-altering injuries in the bombing. Neither she nor any of the families who lost children in the bombing were compensated for their losses. Two young boys were murdered in the civil unrest that swept the city later that day. Their families were never compensated for their loss. Although the church did receive many donations to help with rebuilding, the donations fell far short of the amount needed, and fundraising for renovations is ongoing today, fifty-six years later. And despite many strides toward equalizing opportunities for Black and brown people, Birmingham still has stark issues of racial bias, expressed in unequal access to affordable housing and utilities, to quality education, to living wage jobs, and to safe neighborhoods. These differences in access sprawl across the metro area, and the underlying attitudes that white people are intrinsically more deserving, Black people less so, still remain entrenched in our systems—systems of food access, systems of policing, systems of taxation, systems of neighborhood development, systems of strategic investment.

We can turn our attention from blame to community re-integration, from shame to healing, and from punishment to restoration.

We live in a culture that focuses on blame and punishment, so we have blamed the bombers for the incident and allowed a long-delayed criminal trial to represent “justice.” Such “justice” allows white folks to ignore our collective guilt in allowing systems of racial injustice to continue. In this culture, victims often feel undeserved shame for their having “allowed” themselves to be victimized, so the victims bear the responsibility to go on with their lives as best they can, without help from others. In this culture, we engage in short-lived public mourning rituals for incidents such as the bombing, memorialize the dead, offer pious prayers, ignore our collective shame, hide our collective guilt, and move on. But there’s another way.

We can turn our attention from blame to community re-integration, from shame to healing, and from punishment to restoration.

For the folks who were harmed by the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, this change of outlook would have provided meaningful compensation to those harmed on September 15, 1963. Families would have been restored to the extent possible, the church would have been completely restored, and the racial tensions harming the city would have been addressed openly and fully.  

For all of us in the Birmingham metro area today, this change of outlook will lead us to change the systems that disenfranchise so many of our community members. We can create systems that produce environmental restoration, economic restoration, and equal rights restoration.

 The formula is simultaneously simple to express and challengingly complex to enact:

Create inclusive and egalitarian community,

restore individuals and the community when needed,

transform when possible.

In these ways, we can heal our own shame, meaningfully address our guilt, and not only restore but transform our community. The beauty of these restorative practices is that any stakeholder—those who have harmed others, those who have experienced harm, and those who have witnessed harms done—can see the need and take up the work.

Let’s start today.

 

Part II: Composting our Individual Shit:

In addition to the need for collective restorative acts that address centuries of harm, I see a need to examine shame on an individual level, a manufactured shame that tells us we are not enough. Instead of saying we did something wrong, this shame says we are something wrong.

There’s a multiplicity of places to pick up this shame in our society especially as racialized people, as queer and trans people, as disabled people, as poor people. There is almost like a Mall of Shame, each shop filled with different messages to shame and disconnect us from our inherent greatness inside: all the things that the TV and commercials and magazines say, all the comments that parents, grandparents and those kids at school make, the swim coach, the librarian, the random guy on the street. All of these shamesshops can coalesce in the atrium, creating a giant, powerful narrative of self as unworthy, unwhole.

In writing this piece, shame has been a focal point in my mind. I am now of the mind that shame is literally everywhere and it is keeping so many of us from being gentle with and connected to our full miraculous selves. For those who this pandemic has exacerbated feelings of shame and unworthiness that these systems have planted within us, I see you and hope this article soothes some of the voices inside of you. And for those that cannot even begin to think about shame in this moment because this pandemic has magnified the failings of our system, I see you and hope you get the support you need.

I have had a lot of experience with shame and have, until more recently, been ill-equipped to deal with the shame I felt with my body, with how I showed up in the world, and with being different–Black and poor in white spaces. This past summer I worked with some of the brilliant organizers behind Earth Month 2020. I am forever grateful that they welcomed me, sat with me, talked with me, and connected me to work that needed to be done. I was pumped and excited and felt like this opportunity was what my soul had been waiting for for a long time. And I didn’t show up fully. I was not able to commit myself and follow through on the work in the way that I wanted. I felt so deeply flawed, unable to see my gifts and my offerings. When I would sit down to work on a project, shame and anxiety would take over, and in keeping this shame to myself, as Brene Brown, a shame researcher notes, my shame was able to grow exponentially.

This can also be a reminder that you are whole, that you are complete. Your experience of shame or otherness are real reactions to the values of these oppressive systems.

Her more than a decade of research also shows while shame thrives in conditions of secrecy, silence, and judgment, it cannot survive being spoken and met with empathy. Every single instance when I did show up in this beautiful community of organizers, I felt deeply loved and supported and celebrated for my very existence regardless of what I was producing. Many simultaneous events in my life pushed me to be vulnerable and I deepened what it meant to love myself through feeling deep and supportive love from my family, my partner, and my community. Slowly but surely, over this last year, I have, through constant and often uncomfortable vulnerability, gotten into a much better relationship with my shame.

So this is a love letter to me in a continued journey of vulnerability. Maybe to you and the things that tell you to stay small and keep hiding. Perhaps, this is an affirmation that what you are struggling with is valid, that you are not alone. This can also be a reminder that you are whole, that you are complete. Your experience of shame or otherness are real reactions to the values of these oppressive systems. Let this stand as a reminder, however, that the values of the system are fucked and there is nothing unworthy about you.

Vanessa Andreotti, an Indigenous Brazilian scholar, urges people to compost their own shit so we can compost our collective shit. Similarly, I see this work of learning to be more gentle with ourselves and our shame as vital to move through and beyond the collective shame brought by centuries of racialized, patriarchal violence that still abounds, unrestored. So let this serve as an invitation to (re)examine your relationship with shame, to sprinkle love and gentleness over the process of quelling shame, and maybe even to share some of that shame that keeps you from feeling your full miraculous nature–share it with your journal, yourself in a mirror, your friend, family member, a tree.

Brene Brown talks about increasing resilience to shame by getting to know it and finding sweet and gentle ways to respond to its often looming presence. Some questions that might help this process are: What does your shame look and smell like? What triggers your shame? How does it sit in your body? What has helped you deal with your shame in the past? What is your experience with vocalizing shame and how might that be expanded? What’s been helpful to you in moving through shame? How do you practice vulnerability in your life?

Some other things that are helping me with shame and feelings of unworthiness are:

 

  • Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Black Feminist Breathing Chorus–shame disconnects me from my spiritual lineage, the breathing chorus brings me back.
  • Vanessa Andreotti’s Bus Metaphor, which allows me to voice things that may feel shameful without identifying so strongly with the question–changing “I have this question” to “someone on my bus has this question”.
  • Vulnerability heaped on vulnerability heaped on vulnerability.
  • Meditation
  • Music–Tank and the Bangas Instructions on Being, Jamila Wood’s Holy and Sa-Roc’s Forever have spoken to the shadowy parts in me.
  • Affirmations– I am enough, I am worthy.
  • Looking at myself in the mirror everyday and picking out one thing about my body that I like–challenging myself to find a new thing every day or send love to a part I don’t love yet.
  • Being deeply loved by others and taking notes.
  • Community that constantly affirms me and sees that I am trying and that is damn good enough.

My wish for you on Earth Day 2020, and really every day to come, is that you have practices and people that make you feel damn good enough, for your sake, our collective sake, and–I really believe–the sake of this planet.

 

**This piece might not apply to you at all. Shame was/is a huge Elephant in My Room, but it is not the only thing that keeps people feeling small; I hope you have support for whatever you are experiencing. May this be an affirmation in dark times for those who need it and a blessing to those who cannot or do not need to tackle shame in this moment.

Cynthia Mwenja is a Professor of Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Montevallo and works with the ideas of restorative practices within her classrooms and the larger community. Marian Mwenja is focused on (re)learning how to grow food and medicine, cultivate healing practices and actualize liberation in our lifetime. Cynthia and Marian are a mother-child duo currently quarantining in Montevallo, AL.