In 2015, writer Kwame Dawes and photographer Andre Lambertson wrote about the confluence of faith and shame in dealing with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. The pair traveled to the Caribbean island to investigate the experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS, and having to navigate a Christian social and political culture that, for a time, shamed them for contracting the disease.
In their project, “The Guardy and the Shame,” the authors discuss the legacy of slavery and colonialism in making Jamaicans deeply connected to a kind of Christian moral code – one that was strict about sexual mores and rigid about sexual activities that reside outside of the male-female-marriage hookup. Homosexuality, sex work, and promiscuity, each carried degrees of stigma, with the first of these doing most of the work.
The link between homosexuality and HIV/AIDs is still too strong to ignore, but the nuances that help explain the connection aren’t given nearly as much thoughtful consideration in comparison.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2016, Black American men who have sex with other men were more likely to be affected by HIV than any other group. Black people represent only 13 % of the U.S. population, and the HIV infection rate among Black people generally is only about 2%. However, the Foundation for Aids Research, amFAR, noted last year that one in two Black men are expected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime and that the rate of infection for Black gay men is 30%.
In the United States, the “Black” category also includes Caribbean and African immigrants. This point is vital to the concept of shame that I mentioned earlier.
amFar claims that an estimated 14% of Black Americans who have HIV don’t know they have it. Late diagnoses kneecap the successful benefits of early detection, and they increase the possibility of unknowingly spreading the disease in Black communities. Ignorance has the potential to abet shame, but it’s doing community health no favors.
I don’t know if it is possible to quantify shame. And I don’t know if it’s possible to quantify the outcomes associated with shame. But I wonder how significant a factor shame is when sexually active Black gay or bisexual men decide not to get tested, or they do get tested and need to grapple with the implications of an HIV positive diagnosis.
In their work for the Guardy and Shame project, Dawes and Lambertson interviewed Andre H.C. Davis, a psychologist and Christian pastoral counselor who mentioned that, in Jamaica, shame shuts people down and renders them stuck in that shame. Davis said:
We’re driving on a highway, something traumatic or something significant happens, either some kind of public demonstration of shame, whether the person is called a name, or whether the person is treated a certain way, and the red light comes on. When the red light comes on you are not supposed to move, you have to wait before the green light comes on, and a lot of times in the experience of our people the green light never comes on, so they are almost stuck in this place emotionally, and they are not able to move on.
Today, June 8, marks the celebration of the National Caribbean-American AIDS Awareness Day (NCAAAD). It is the opposite of shame – indignity and judgment. The opposite of being stuck.
NCAAAD falls during National Caribbean-American Heritage Month and is a joint venture between the CDC and the Caribbean People International Collective Inc. It pushes beyond cultural or religious stigmas to seek solutions that address what is – in this case, that the Caribbean region of the world is second in transmission rates of HIV/AIDS. And that Black and Latinx Americans – who include Caribbean-Americans – continue to make up a disproportionate share of people living and dying of HIV/AIDS in the United States. NCAAAD isn’t concerned with adhering to social mores or religious traditions. Its purpose is to keep Caribbean-Americans healthy and informed, and also to “reflect, memorialize and show compassion for those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.” It is the opposite of shame.
NCAAAD represents an embrace, perhaps even a lifeline for Caribbean-Americans who need the support. To learn more about National Caribbean-American AIDS Awareness Day visit www.caribbeanhealthaidsday.com.
Cover photo: American Jewish World Service