Dick Gregory is one of the most well-known black comedians and social rights activist who became popular because of his biting humor in criticizing racial prejudice. He is also a nutrition guru and a health entrepreneur advocating change of diet as a catalyst of better living. “Born into poverty, a circumstance he frequently used as the basis for his humor, Dick Gregory attended Southern Illinois University, where he ran track and was the University’s most outstanding athlete in 1953.” (Clovis 539) Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory began his career in the national comedy scene during the year 1961 in The Playboy Club in Chicago where he was able to change the perception and response of white audience towards black comedians.
Aside from being a health enthusiast and social activist, Gregory is a also a sensational writer where his experience of racial discrimination serves as his major inspiration. Most of his writings describe the struggles of blacks in the white society who judges them by their color, and refuses to look at their promising potential and great character. His autobiographical story named “Shame” narrates the humiliating, embarrassing and cruel experience that he endured as a black kid and it chronicles the dark episodes of his life that were fueled by his class and color.
In his short story, Gregory describes the uneasy feeling of shame in several ways to discuss social and individual inhumanity to other people- particularly those who are powerless and weak. He succeeds in conveying his view and promoting his advocacy by detailing his personal struggles while he was growing up. One of the key strengths of his work is the effective structure of the story’s transition of events, employment of special words, use of vivid imagery and moving ethos. Gregory deviates from the usual chronological order of events used in most fiction and non-fiction stories. Instead, he uses flashback where he takes the readers to that day when he was only seven years old. This literary technique allows the old Gregory to relive his childhood memory- the stage of his life when he is still ignorant of the feelings of hate or shame. He tells the audience that, “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.” (Gregory 1) This flashback also conveys a deeper message that Gregory’s childhood is one of the most significant and life-changing episode of his life that he had unwittingly preserved in his long-term memory.
The use of flashback gives the readers a closer glimpse of Gregory’s past and reveals something about his character as a kid. The introductory paragraph presents the young Gregory as a typical kid who nurtures a special feeling for one of his girl classmates. “I was in love with a little girl named Helene Tucker, a light-complexioned little girl with pigtails and nice manners.”(Gregory 1) This passage provides a characterization of young Gregory who is a normal boy whose infatuation with a pretty girl gives him the pleasure and the motivation to go to school everyday. Gregory does not use direct characterization because he does not outrightly state his character and attitude as a kid. He does not use adjectives to describe himself, but he employs indirect characterization through dialogues, actions and thoughts. Through these elements, the author describes himself as an innocent kid who has no insecurities and is still ignorant of the damaging barrier set by one’s racial class and color.
The story’s flashback is also a revelation of Gregory’s financial status. In describing his economic state, the author never expresses blatantly that they were “extremely poor.” Rather, he lets the details of the narrative to show a vivid picture of poverty. In the first paragraph, he confesses that he had no handkerchief of his own because he was using a lady hanky. Additionally, the handkerchief is old and it is also very small. However, the he does not mind using an old handkerchief of somebody else because he does not want Helene to see him “wipe his nose on his hand.”
Furthermore, the author does not mention directly that he had endured great sacrifices just to be able to go to school the next day. Instead, he provides the details of his routine through special words like scooping out chopped ice from Mister Ben’s soda machine. He explains that he will wait for the ice to melt so that he can wash his shirt and socks. Worst, the fire goes out before the clothes become dry that come morning he would put them on, “wet or dry, because they were the only clothes I had.” (Gregory 1) This is one of the heart-breaking situations in the story where he ignites the readers’ feeling of empathy. Gregory articulates his underprivileged childhood through detailing events that strongly invite the readers to take a peek on his life's miserable journey.
The characters in Gregory’s autobiographical essay represent different concepts. Helene is a representation of the material desires of young Dick- wit, cleanliness, fair complexion, popularity, and above all, has a father with decent job. “Everybody’s got a Helene Tucker, a symbol of everything you want.” (Gregory 1) These desires continued to be a part of his system until he got married at twenty-nine. Helene personifies all the things that he wish to have, but was deprived of having. Helen’s character does not only function as Gregory’s puppy love; she is a symbol of success that he had been dreaming of. Gregory’s gradeschool teacher on the other hand, is a portrayal of the social ideologies surrounding his class.
In discussing the important role that class and color play on someone’s life, Gregory employs a striking appeal to emotion that raises the readers’ ethical consciousness. He describes himself as “pregnant” with all the negativities that a crude life can offer. “Pregnant with dirt and pregnant with smells that made people turn away, pregnant with cold and pregnant with shoes that were never bought for me, pregnant with five other people in my bed and no Daddy in the next room, and pregnant with hunger.” (Gregory 2) This is one of the most emotional passages in the story where readers can not help but sympathize with the hardships that a little boy have suffered.
Despite this desolate position, the kid have tried his best to attend class everyday. Until he learns the volatile emotion of shame one Monday morning. In his immature attempt to save his pride and feel good, he is determined to give his hard-earned three dollars for the Community Chest. Unluckily, (as it always was) the teacher closed the book without calling his name. When he insisted giving money, the teacher demeaned him by saying that “We are collecting this money for you and your kind, Richard Gregory.” (Gregory 2) This is a very harsh statement that destroys a child’s morale and worse, it comes from a teacher whose duty is to hone students’ confidence. This is one of the most painful lessons that Gregory have learned- to be ashamed of himself, of his life, and of everything about him.
In his last attempt to hold on to his self-respect, his teacher totally ruined it by announcing and reiterating in front of everyone that he has no father. It caused him to feel extrinsic shame that he felt so small in front of the class. It intensified the feeling of not being “normal” while all the kids in the class can talk proudly about their father. “He felt like the invisible and unfortunate other who is a helpless victim of his teacher’s racial contempt. What is more shameful is that Helene Tucker heard that he had no father and she cried because she pitied Richard. He was hoping that Helene would notice him in positive ways, but she had noticed him because he is the only boy in the class without a father. She noticed him because he was the only boy in the class who has no capacity to donate for the Community Chest. Worst, Helene have known that all the donations are meant for him and his kind-an event which is awfully embarrassing. He felt inferior and worthless. He was wishing that Helene would like him, not pity him which makes the experience utterly shameful. Gregory ends the scene by incorporating a humorous, but equally painful confession. He tells the readers that he thought the teacher liked him because she always picked him during Friday afternoon to do an important task- wash the blackboard. This scenario reflects social prejudice, unfairness and injustice that after the teacher ignores him during class interactions, he would call Gregory every Friday afternoon because she believes that the only skill that the boy has is to wash dirty blackboards. The teacher represents the racial discrimination that victimize the vulnerable blacks whose only option was to be a willing victim. The teacher’s behavior, attitude and actions remind him of his material vulnerabilities and lack of paternal figure.
Gregory highlights the social and economic class distinctions that negatively impact the morale of the blacks. The Annual Christmas Dinner that is held for Gregory “and his kind” is called as Worthy Annual Christmas Dinner in order to emphasize that such dinner is for the black kids. The society calls him “worthy boy” and makes him wear orange, brown and white plaid to signify that he is on relief. These social distinctions and economic challenges were not shameful at first, but that day when his teacher taught him the “lesson on shame” he began to take the long way home so that people will not see him. He started to feel ashamed of asking Mr. Ben for rotten peaches, running out to the truck of relief foods and asking for one spoon of sugar from Mrs. Simmons.
He never resented that he did not have someone to call “Daddy” until her indifferent teacher charged him with offensive insults of not having a father and the class donation are for his kind. The teacher further portrays a bigger social crisis that prevails in the American society. By narrating her actions, Gregory highlights the concept that people tend to be cruel and cold when dealing with the weaker members of the society. Aside from being a kid, the young Gregory is also a poor child with no father which makes him a vulnerable subject of abuse and verbal violence. The teacher humiliated him in front of everyone, infront of Helene, without feeling sorry for what she did.
Gregory’s short story presents and analyzes the two types of shame by detailing different situations from his childhood until adulthood. The first type is the one inflicted by other people by intention such as the teacher’s treatment over Richard. The second type is self-inflicted shame that one feels when he know that he committed a mistake, acted wrongly, or failed to act or behave in an appropriate manner. This type is reflected in the scene where Gregory watches the wino being brutally beaten by the diner’s owner before he resolves to pay for the old man’s meal. The wino reminds him of his cruel experiences of poverty, humiliation and class discrimination. The wino was like his younger self. While the old man is beaten physically because of his inability to pay 26 cents, he was emotionally tortured by his teacher when he pledged to give 15 dollars which was impossible for a poor kid to give. Not paying for the man’s meal does not make him any different from her teacher who just ignored his struggles and did not offer any help.
The wino felt the similar kind of shame that Gregory have suffered. But despite having the same circumstances, he did not do anything to save the wino from shame until it was too late to help. The wino says, “Thanks, sonny, but it’s too late now. Why didn’t you pay it before?” (Gregory 2) The man was already beaten before he offered help which inflicts in him a new kind of shame. And he will only succeed in letting go of this shame by not committing the same mistake in the future. Gregory’s childhood experiences of discrimination, economic distinctions, and humiliation have shaped his mature and adult perspective. This perspective tells the readers that it is a shame to just watch people suffer or to humiliate their already-desolate condition. Instead, they should offer timely help that could change their destiny and possibly save them from painful experiences.
Gregory, Dick. “Shame.” Web. 21 Jul. 2015. <http://it.pinellas.k12.fl.us/teachers4/trivisonm/files/
Semmes, Clovis. "Entrepreneur Of Health: Dick Gregory, Black Consciousness, And The Human Potential Movement." Journal Of African American Studies 16.3 (2012): 537-549.