Legacies and chains

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Legacies and chains: structuring shame in the African Caribbean

by Carlton Turner

We are living in a time of pandemic and many of the assumptions we’ve made about how the world works, how it really works, have come into full view.

With the public lynching of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests across the globe and even declarations by the Church of England that it is structurally racist, issues such as racism have come to our attention quite dramatically. Being very aware of this important discussion and how it holds deep significance for conversations around theologies of mission, ANVIL dedicated a commendable set of reflections in a previous issue.1 The range of articles are personal and contextual, but they highlight the structural nature of racism that any missional practice, particularly in cross-cultural contexts, would be wise to acknowledge. This current issue is dedicated to the concept of “shame”.

During the pandemic I found myself speaking about the legacies of colonialism at Wells Cathedral and how much of what was being experienced in British society and across the globe were the toxic legacies of colonisation experienced as a reframing of the stories of our lives. I inevitably was meditating on shame.2 With the aid of postcolonial insights and reflecting out of the reality of mission practices and their legacies within the African Caribbean, I want to suggest that shame, intrinsically linked to racism, is also a structural reality, inevitably produced and maintained within contexts where colonisation has been a shaping force. In this article I will tease out this assertion by firstly looking at shame within some practical theological work; secondly, insisting that shame undergirds the very shaping of the African Caribbean; and finally, articulating this sense of shame through what I have termed Self-Negation in my own research in the African Caribbean context.


Before parsing the African Caribbean context and commenting on what I have come to name as the process of Self-Negation, it is helpful to tease out the structural nature of shame from a theological point of view.3 Synonyms of the word “shame” abound and words like contempt, degradation, diminishment and reproach can be interchangeable, but generally there is the sense of a devaluing of one’s sense of being. Within the British practical theology scene, shame is getting increased attention. The first thing to state here is that shame is not easily defined and within a Western framework, it has usually been associated with emotions. Stephen Pattison’s Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology positions the phenomenon as something to be traced, that cannot be related to just one theoretical perspective. He sets out a kaleidoscope of approaches – cultural, social constructionist, literary, sociological, biopsychological and psychotherapeutic – with which to understand the experience of shame but is careful to not privilege one over the other.4 He suggests an ecology of the terminology that, for our attempts at a description, includes “acute or reactive shame”, resulting from particular events, or “chronic shame”, which tends to be more of a character trait.5 Pattison’s reflection picks up on the more negative and chronic nature of shame that manifests both in individuals and in societies, arguing that both require a kind of integration.6

Sally Nash reminds us that shame is very much an experience, not merely an emotion, and must be understood beyond the personal. In her research on shame and the church, she explains that because shame is difficult to define owing to its complex and hidden nature, a typology is more helpful. The typology arising from her research includes Personal Shame; Communal Shame, Relationship Shame, Structural Shame, Theological Shame and Historical Shame.7 What we begin to see from Nash’s insights is that shame is deeply structural, but also “structuring”. The church as an entity can, and often does, produce and perpetuate shame. It does so theologically when one’s “views of God and their core beliefs are challenged, opposed, ridiculed and misrepresented”.8 She warns us that much of what can be shaming is often ingrained in experience of church through metaphor, worship and liturgy. Judith Rossall, in perhaps the most recent work on shame, admonishes us to be careful with our biblical hermeneutics around sin, guilt and shame since we have yet to contend with all that the Bible has to say about them. Unless we get our reading strategy right, Rossall gives this warning: “If we fail to take the broader message into account, we can leave people struggling with a toxic shame. What is more, we are likely to become more and more irrelevant to a world that is very concerned with issues such as self-esteem and self-worth.”9 With these insights in mind I want to turn attention to a postcolonial assessment of the African Caribbean context where we see just how shame has been structured within plantation slavery.

Legacies and chains

Using a postcolonial lens, I want to further explore the structural aspect of shame. By chains and legacies, I am suggesting that postcolonial and post-slavery contexts, both Western and non-Western, former colonising powers and the formerly colonised, are linked together through processes and events within a shared history. Whether I’m a native Briton or Bahamian, privileges or dispossessions have been determined long ago in ways that we are not often conscious of. These chains, these legacies, are cultural, socioeconomic, philosophical, political, psychological, biological, physical and yes, also theological. Legacies and chains as concepts are very helpful ways of engaging our conversation around shame. This idea is somewhat indebted to the way Joy DeGruy uses the multiple ways in which the trauma of enslavement has followed Black people into contemporary American societies.10

In my reading of history several insights need to come to the forefront and perhaps the first place to begin is the Graeco–Roman world. Let’s think of the ancient Graeco–Roman empire as a combination of a particular philosophy around culture and civilisation undergirded by a brutal military way of engaging others who are not within Rome’s control. Ancient Rome as an empire did what empires do; it ruled through expansion. Its expansion was through colonisation. Colonisation is not an innocent word or process. It is the imposition of one culture onto another by force. In Rome’s case it was through iron and blood. The suppression and incorporation of other cultures and territories into the Roman colonial system was psychologically, ethnically, spiritually, socially and culturally destructive to those ruled by the empire. A good example of this is the idea of the Pax Romana, so glorified for large periods of the church’s history. The narrative of first-century Palestine was that Rome brought “peace” to its territories. However, peace for Rome meant the utter submission of all its territories and the reorganising of such territories into “colonies”. This peace came through bloodshed. This peace was no peace at all! It was the structuring of shame for the subjects of Rome’s empire.

By the time we come to European expansion into the New World, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, the idea of Christendom had been crystalised. Christianity had moved beyond its minority Jewish identity and had become the religion of empire. Cross and crown had become intertwined in such a way that notions of civilisation were synonymous with salvation. In other words, to be Christian meant being civilised, European and particularly white. In fact, the shaping of the world at this time had a boundary, and those beyond that boundary were deemed as heathen. It just so happened that that boundary within the first-century Roman-occupied Palestinian world saw those of Egypt and Ethiopia, those of dark skin and so-called false gods, as heathens. But what do you do when your theology is shaped by empire and militaristic suppression? You colonise the other who is not like you and do your best to erase everything that makes them different.

This explains Europe’s first encounter with the New World. Columbus had one mandate: to find new territory (and subjects!) for the king and queen of Spain. This meant the forced conversion of the people he had encountered to the Christian religion. What ensued was the genocide of vast populations of indigenous peoples and cultures that predated Christianity by millennia. By the time we come to the period of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century with its ideology of rationalism and human progress, much of the underpinning philosophy structured reality dualistically. Human reason would discern reality through opposites, through categories, through boxes. In this period, we find the emergence of the concept of race now taking on a colour: Black would become a race; and race would be a way of categorising and evaluating human beings. Black would stand for the negative, the “other”, the unacceptable and the shamed. We’re not talking any more about the ancient Graeco–Roman world, but the very shaping of Western society and the modern world in which the African Caribbean has played a vital role! This is what Robert Hood argued for in his book with its important question in the title: Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk.11

But this was also a theological reality. Theologies of empire have long been indebted to this dualistic shaping of the world. In an important text on mission, Mission After Christendom, David Smith explains that this nascent model of Christendom was undergirded by a platonic philosophy and cosmology that divided the world into dualisms. On the one hand, the empire and its church had the “gospel”, truth and light; on the other, anything beyond the control of the empire constituted ignorance, darkness and evil. With this world view it then became clear that the “barbarous other” beyond the reach of empire needed conversion to the truth, light and culture of Christendom.12 Western theologies of empire were structured around either/ or suppositions, dividing the world between right and wrong, acceptable and dispensable, civilised and uncivilised, and implicitly, black and white! In fact, when our concepts of God are shaped dualistically, then there is no space for imagination, for multiplicity, for the unknown. What we end up with are societies and theological frameworks geared towards producing shame, especially for those who are on the other side of privilege. And the chains remain.

The shaping of shame in the African Caribbean

These chains literally lead us to the African Caribbean, where colonial missionary Christianity, African slave trade and plantation slavery simultaneously extended Great Britain’s reach across the world but also ensured the continued economic and political strength of the nation within Europe and the wider world. In what follows we can also say that we come to see how concepts of shame structured identity both personally and societally. Plantations were never designed for human flourishing. These were factories with one purpose in mind: the economic yielding of the colonies for the accumulation of wealth back home. Orlando Patterson argues that plantation societies are best described as “non-societies” that functioned solely for economic production.13 In such a context slaves were not considered humans, but rather beasts of burden. They were property. It was determined that they did not really have a rational soul. Interestingly, as Caribbean theologians have consistently pointed out, the English plantocracy were most resistant to educating or Christianising their slaves and made life difficult for missionaries who tried to do so.14 In exploring the intercultural dynamics of plantation life, Noel Erskine explains the following: “In the meeting of Europe and Africa, blackness was interpreted in the light of bondage, and whiteness in the light of freedom.”15 In fact, the issue of colour was so deeply rooted that human worth and value was based on gradations based on black–white unions. For example, the term “Mulatto” was given to the child of a Black woman and a white man; “Sambo”, the child of a mulatto and a Black man; “Quadroon”, the child of a mulatto and a white man; “Mustee”, the child of a quadroon and a white man; “Mustiphini”, the child of a mustee and a white man; “Quintroon”, the child of a mustiphini and a white man; and “Octoroon”, the child of a quintroon and a white man.16 Immediately we see that the central determinant was whiteness, and the central character was a white man. Erskine rightly observed the traumatic shaping of Black life within the Western ecclesiastical and political context when he wrote, “To be white was to be free and to be Black was to be sentenced to bondage.”17

To further our appreciation of the utter brutality of the historical shaping of the African Caribbean we must dig deeper. Two eminent historians of the Caribbean, Professors Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd, have been at the forefront of the reparations movement when considering the legacies of slavery and colonialism within the British empire. Beckles’s book Britain’s Black Debt argues that Britain’s moral bankruptcy is compounded by its failure to answer the call for reparations, given that British slaveowners were paid £20 million in compensation for surrendering their slaves in 1838.18 This amounts to almost £2.4 billion in today’s currency, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator.19 If we were to look at the current reparations debate, we get a clear picture of just how present conditions have been shaped by historical realities. The Caribbean Reparations Commission says in its 10-point plan:

Point 2 – Repatriation: “Over 10 million Africans were stolen from their homes and forcefully transported to the Caribbean as the enslaved chattel and property of Europeans. The transatlantic slave trade is the largest forced migration in human history and has no parallel in terms of man’s inhumanity to man. This trade in enchained bodies was a highly successful commercial business for the nations of Europe. The lives of millions of men, women and children were destroyed in search of profit.”20

Point 5 – Public Health Crisis: “The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes. This pandemic is the direct result of the nutritional experience, physical and emotional brutality, and overall stress profiles associated with slavery, genocide, and apartheid. Over 10 million Africans were imported into the Caribbean during the 400 years of slavery. At the end of slavery in the late 19th century less than 2 million remained. The chronic health condition of Caribbean blacks now constitutes the greatest financial risk to sustainability in the region.”21

Legacies in contemporary British society

When we come to the UK context, we have two Black British theologians of Caribbean descent, children of the Windrush generation, who have been prophetic in their assessment of racism and colonialism especially within theology and the church. I speak of Professors Robert Beckford and Anthony Reddie (https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=CbKu8Yv8cbQ). In both their works they expose the dangerous idea of white normativity and its profound effects on Black bodies and Black life. They argue that Christianity as we have received it through its Western, Graeco–Roman, colonial baggage, must confront its assumption that whiteness is the standard, or is normative, or to put it another way, it is the ideal that one must look up to. Beckford’s latest book, Documentary as Exorcism, explains that colonial Christianity does a kind of bewitchment that works to hide its maltreatment of Blackness and Black culture.22 Reddie, who is the author of Theologising Brexit, his latest book, wrote an article in the Black Theology journal that he entitled “Christianity Tu’n Mi Fool”.23 In it he shows how confessional Christianity in postcolonial Britain still carries those chains of oppression where white is held as normative and Black is disparaged and negated, even by Black people themselves.

But why would they do this? How can they say this? Well, if you were Black in the 1950s and 1960s arriving to “Mother England” seeking to be settled within British society as a citizen of the empire, you got the shock of your life. You were rejected in every facet of society, and especially the church. “No Black, No Irish, No Dogs” were not just signs on pubs, they were invisible signs posted on the doors of churches. But let’s stay with the Windrush for a moment. Seventy years later we have come to see how those early migrants have continued to suffer, in plain sight. In 2017, as we prepared to celebrate 70 years of this community who helped to build modern Britain after the war, we saw that so many were wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. The review of the Windrush scandal has determined that policies were designed to make life impossible for those immigrants. These policies targeted a group, and divided society between Black and white, all in plain sight. And, for those African Caribbean migrants and their descendants, their lives and their experience were shaped by shame.

Shame and self-negation

My recent book on Caribbean contextual theology, using extensive qualitative and ethnographic research into the relationship between the church and Junkanoo in contemporary Bahamian society, offers an example of this shaping or structuring of shame.24 Junkanoo is a carnival-like street festival celebrated on New Year’s Day and Boxing Day every year in some parts of the Anglophone African Caribbean. It has come to symbolise Bahamian cultural and national identity. The research question arose out of what I had felt all my life, that these two spheres of national, cultural and religious identity – Junkanoo and the church – were seen as antithetical, and that Junkanoo, no matter how we love it, is not fit for church, nor for the realm of the holy. It is this tension or dissonance, where Bahamians themselves deem a large part of their identity as illegitimate, secular or even demonic, that lies deep within everyday life, and often not consciously perceived. Caribbean intellectual giants such as W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney have helped me to articulate this tension, this structured, chronic, theologically maintained sense of shame, as self-negation.25 In their own ways they frame African Caribbean life through the lens of trauma, when one’s story, one’s sense of self, is severely disrupted, and this disruption is retold, relived, over lifetimes, on and on until somehow it is resolved or integrated and transformed into a larger narrative. But trauma doesn’t only affect the oppressed. It severely affects the oppressor too. It does so by constantly showing up in unjust societies, through protests, revolts, violence and disorder. It ties us all into a drama of violence that cannot be hidden; it cannot be suppressed. Bob Marley, in invoking the words of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie I’s 1963 speech to the United Nations, proves prophetic:

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior, and another inferior, is finally, and permanently, discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war. That until there no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, me say war.26

I ultimately argue in the book that there is a problematic, schizophrenic relationship between religion (Christianity/church) and culture (Junkanoo) wherein African Caribbean religious and cultural heritages are considered antithetical, inappropriate or even “demonic” for church use.

My conclusions coincide with what theologians such as Pattison, Nash and Rossall have said earlier.27 There is an ambivalent nature to self-negation as there is an ambivalent nature to shame. Pattison says the following: “The relationship between shame and Christian thought and practice is complex and ambivalent, as is the relationship between Christianity and human well-being generally. Christianity can create, exploit, and deny shame in groups and individuals. However, it can also diminish and alleviate shame, enhancing worth, efficacy and esteem.”28 My research concludes firstly that there is still a hermeneutic around sacred and secular that continues to structure faith and is colonially informed. Secondly, church practices are often, but not always, inherently perpetuating an anti-Africanness, even within an all-Black nation such as the Bahamas, long after national independence from Great Britain. Thirdly, this deep sense of dissonance is carried within the body, the mind, the heart and even within acts of worship. Finally, self-negation is not only personal! Like shame, it can be cultural, institutional, national and regional. It is not simply something that is a product, in an acute sense, but rather something ontological, structured and chronic.


In this article I have progressively tried to tease out the structural nature of shame that probably requires further theological attention and is extremely important when thinking about practices of mission, especially in cross-cultural contexts. I have looked at some theological reflections around shame, where we are admonished to remember that it is not so easily defined and must be seen beyond the personal to the structural and the communal. Using postcolonial lenses, I have traced how shame has been key to how empires function, from Ancient Rome to the British empire, with particular emphasis on the shaping of shame within the African Caribbean. Finally, using my work on self-negation within the Bahamian context, I have looked more closely at how ambivalent church and cultural practices perpetuate a deep, structural and chronic sense of shame within post-slavery and postcolonial societies.

About the author

Revd Dr Carlton Turner is an Anglican priest and tutor in Contextual Theology and Mission Studies at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. His recent book, Overcoming Self-Negation, explores various African Caribbean indigenous spiritualities, particularly Junkanoo in the Bahamas, where Carlton is from. As a contextual and practical theologian, he is particularly interested in theologies of the Global South and the kinds of wisdom they offer to our contemporary world. He spoke about his experience at the Transforming Shame conference.

More from this issue


1 Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, “Editorial: Faultlines in Mission: Reflections on Race and Colonialism,” ANVIL 36, no. 3 (October 2020).
2 The video and script for this talk can be found here: “Legacies and Chains: The Hidden Script,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=K4fBoUyd09U. Much of the content of this talk has been adapted for this article.
3 See my recently published book, Carlton Turner, Overcoming Self-Negation: The Church and Junkanoo in Contemporary Bahamian Society (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020).
4 Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
5 Ibid., 82–85.
6 See Pattison, chapter 7 (154–80).
7 Sally Nash, Shame and the Church: Exploring and Transforming Practice (London: SCM Press, 2020), 16.
8 Ibid.
9 Judith Rossall, Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the Shamed (London: SCM Press, 2020), vii.
10 See, Joy DeGruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Milwaukie, OR: Uptone Press, 2005).
11 Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990). See also Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999); Anthony B. Pinn, Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Dwight N. Hopkins, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
12 David Smith, Mission After Christendom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003), 3.
13 Orlando Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica, Studies in Society (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967).
14 For example, see Dale A. Bisnauth, “Mission Impossible?” in The Caribbean: Culture of Resistance, Spirit of Hope, ed. Oscar L. Bolioli (New York: Friendship Press, 1993), 199. See also, Arthur C. Dayfoot, “The Shaping of the West Indian Church: Historical Factors in the Formation of the Pattern of Church Life in the English-Speaking Caribbean 1492–1870” (ThD, Emmanuel College, Victoria University, 1982), 275.
15 Noel Leo Erskine, Decolonizing Theology: A Caribbean Perspective (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998), 34.
16 Ibid., 35.
17 Ibid.
18 Hilary McD. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2013). For a deeper understanding of the history of genocide and systems of slavery as it pertains the New World and the Caribbean, see Hilary McD. Beckles and Verene A. Shepherd, Liberties Lost: The Indigenous Caribbean and Slave Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
19 CPI Inflation Calculator, https://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1833?amount=20000000
20 See “10-Point Reparations Plan”, Caricom Reparations Commission, https://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-pointreparation- plan/
21 Ibid.
22 Robert Beckford, Documentary as Exorcism: Resisting the Bewitchment of Colonial Christianity (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
23 Anthony G. Reddie, “Christianity Tu’n Mi Fool: Deconstructing Confessional Black Christian Faith in Postcolonial Britain,” Black Theology: An International Journal 10, no. 1 (2012); Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique, Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies (London: Routledge, 2019).
24 Turner, Overcoming Self-Negation.
25 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Signet Classics (New York: New American Library, 1969). Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967); The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967). Walter Rodney, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).
26 Bob Marley, “War,” track 9 on Rastaman Vibration, Island Records, 1976.
27 Pattison, Shame. Nash, Shame and the Church. Rossall, Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves.
28 Pattison, Shame, 229.