Shame is defined as an intense and debilitating feeling of embarrassment and it can play a vital role in the development of the human conscience. The feeling can be associated with honor and pride, thereby being an important component in shaping of a person’s identity.
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However, shame is a double edged sword and possesses the ability to have an adverse or traumatic effect on one’s emotional well being. The essay “Shame” by Dick Gregory presents a satirical commentary of the role that shame plays in shaping the lives of the people. He illustrates through his childhood experiences what shame causes as a result of poverty and social differences. Gregory provides a glimpse of the misery by depicting his poignant experiences as a child in a community riddled with poverty, inequality and discrimination.
Dick Gregory begins the essay on an ironic note while depicting his first feeling of shame. Richard, the narrator, encountered the first feelings of shame and hatred at school. As a child, Richard is subjected to the defective nature of the educational institution.
The vice of hatred is introduced to the innocent child’s life not by his experiences in the outside world but rather by the experiences that happen at school. He asserts, “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that” (583). Dick Gregory highlights a school system where children learn how to hate and are subjected to shame and humiliation which is detrimental to their growth and well being.
As a child, Richard’s view of the world is both innocent and frank and is not colored by aspects of social injustices prevalent at the time. When talking about his only pair of clothes, Richard declares, “I’d put them on, wet or dry, because they were the only clothes I had” (583).
He acknowledges these facts without delving into the evils of a society that allows a child to face such misery. Despite the daunting circumstances, Richard still remains ambitious and determined that his hard efforts will pay off. He makes great efforts to impress his beloved classmate, Helene Tucker, even though his social and economic level makes this especially hard.
Richard plans to shine in front of Helene when he has prepared three dollars in dimes and quarters to top her pledge as to buy his legitimacy and a “passport” for acceptance. Richard is ready to go to great ends to achieve his goals, but his hope is extinguished when the teacher disgraces him in class by pointing out his poverty and his lack of a father. She makes the boy lose hope of ever making an impression on Helene which causes him to feel a great shame for the first time.
The theme of social inequality is addressed in “Shame”. Even the eleven year old Richard is aware of this, as is evident in his relationship with Helene. He states, “if I knew my place and didn’t come too close, she’d wink at me and say hello”(583). He has hopes of building a future relationship with her and demonstrates his love and desire to protect her in different ways. Richard envisions the future with Helen and tries to impress her mother and aunts by shoveling snow off her path.
Richard contends, “sometimes I’d follow her all the way home, and shovel the snow off her walk and try to make friends with her Momma and her aunts” (585). On the other hand, one may interpret this as a metaphor for the way in which the people in the lower caste of the society are obligated to serve those of a higher status. Richard expresses his need to protect Helene and his desire to be her knight by dropping money on her porch.
Despite the fact that Helene is the one who is higher up on the social ladder and therefore has more money than Richard, who works hard for the little money he obtains, he secretly “[drops] money on her stoop late at night” (585). This is Gregory’s metaphor for the manner in which the poorer members for the society ironically end up giving their hard earned money to the richer ones despite the fact that they are the ones who are more in need of it.
In the class context, Richard is designated as a troublemaker. Gregory’s description of Richard’s seat as “the idiot’s seat”(585) highlights the fact that the teacher is not interested in trying to determine Richard’s problems but rather appears content with labeling him “an idiot” and “a troublemaker” (585) therefore absolving herself of the need to offer him any help.
Richard states that all he needs is a little attention and all the mischief he involves himself in is to get that attention. However, instead of being given attention, he is discriminated against and disgraced by being isolated in the “idiot’s” seat, where he encounters intraracial discrimination present in the classroom.
Gregory also addresses the themes of poverty and discrimination in “Shame”. Even though Richard is relatively ignorant of the vast social distance that exists between him and others in the society before the incident at school, he is aware of the poverty gap that exists. The fact that he has to do odd jobs such as shinning shoes in the tavern for money accentuates the fact that he lives in dire poverty. His family relies on welfare and wears old clothes handed down by the white people who are relatively rich.
He wishes that “the white folks’ shirt fit [him] better” (583). Describing his lack of concentration in school, Richard says that “[he] was pregnant with hunger” (584). Gregory presents a metaphorical meaning of being pregnant, but in Richard’s case his bulge his apparent because of emptiness and air in his stomach. This image alludes to the fact that he is burdened by hunger as a result of the poverty that is experienced by his family.
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It is this poverty that causes the ultimate shame that Richard is subjected to. Due to his poverty, Richard has to rely on aid which is from charities and the government. The teacher forcefully brings this fact to the attention of the class when she reminds Richard that “if your daddy can give fifteen dollars you have no business being on relief” (583).
Her attack greatly shames Richard in front of his classmates, and from that point onwards, he becomes acutely aware of the differences between “his kind” and the rich people. Issues which remained inconsequential to that point, such as wearing the coat given by the welfare or going to the Worthy Boys Annual Christmas Dinner, suddenly began viewed by Richard as extremely shameful.
The theme of change is addressed by Dick Gregory when he illustrates an encounter between Richard and an old “wino” in a restaurant. The old wino is unable to pay for his meal which prompts the owner of the store to beat him badly. Richard intervenes only after the damage has already been done.
The old man refuses Richard’s help stating “you don’t have to pay for it now. I just finished paying for it” (586). Richard is greatly affected as he is reminded of the fact that he could have assisted the man earlier on when his help would have made a bigger difference.
This incident represents a society where aid is only offered when the suffering of the people has already taken place, thereby diminishing the benefit of the aid. This episode is similar to the episode of shame and humiliation Richard experiences in the class, however, Richard’s decision to help wino can be interpreted as a subconscious decision to feel important and in control over the situation. Again, he experiences shame, but this time due to his own conscience.
“Shame” describes painful experiences in the childhood of Dick Gregory which results in him having a crippling sense of shame. Gregory addresses the themes of racial divisions, poverty and social inequality. The effective progression of the essay develops from the event that shamed Richard in class to an encounter with an old wino that changes his future outlook on life.
The irony of first sentence connects with the irony of the last sentence when Gregory declares, “I was pretty sick about that. I waited too long to help another man” (586). Through structure and metaphor, “Shame” expresses the injustices that were prevalent in the society and highlights how these events can scar every member of the society, the children in particular.
Presenting this enduring emotion in a variety of contexts, Gregory successfully conveys his message concerning social and individual inhumanity. The essay portrays the damage that poverty and discrimination inflicts on Richard’s life. It is poverty that causes shame to Richard and further on results in the old wino paying the price of blood for a measly meal.