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Questions: 1. Where did the narrator learn shame? 2. What did the
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1. Where did the narrator learn shame?

2. What did the narrator do for Helene Tucker? How important was she in his life?

3. According to the narrator, why could he not do well in school? What did the teachers think?

4. What event at school caused shame to control the narrator's life for a long time? Summarize what happened.

5. What did the author dislike about the Worthy Boys Annual Christmas Dinner?


Shame by Dick Gregory Dick Gregory, the well-known comedian, has long been active in the civil rights movement. During the 1960?s

 

Gregory was also an outspoken critic of America?s involvement in Vietnam. In the following episode from his

 

autobiography Nigger (1964), he narrates the story of a childhood experience that taught him the meaning of

 

shame. Through his use of authentic dialogue and vivid details, he dramatically re-creates this experience for his

 

readers. I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that. I was about seven years old when I

 

got my first big lesson. I was in love with a little girl named Helene Tucker, a light-complexioned little

 

girl with pigtails and nice manners. She was always clean and she was smart in school. I think I went to

 

school then mostly to look at her. I brushed my hair and even got me a little old handkerchief. It was a

 

lady's handkerchief, but I didn't want Helene to see me wipe my nose on my hand.

 

The pipes were frozen again, there was no water in the house, but I washed my socks and shirt every

 

night. I'd get a pot, and go over to Mister Ben's grocery store, and stick my pot down into his soda

 

machine and scoop out some chopped ice. By evening the ice melted to water for washing. I got sick a lot

 

that winter because the fire would go out at night before the clothes were dry. In the morning I'd put them

 

on, wet or dry, because they were the only clothes I had.

 

Everybody's got a Helene Tucker, a symbol of everything you want. I loved her for her goodness, her

 

cleanness, her popularity. She'd walk down my street and my brothers and sisters would yell, "Here

 

comes Helene," and I'd rub my tennis sneakers on the back of my pants and wish my hair wasn't so nappy

 

and the white folks' shirt fit me better. I'd run out on the street. If I knew my place and didn't come too

 

close, she'd wink at me and say hello. That was a good feeling. 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. I'd drop

 

money on her stoop late at night on my way back from shining shoes in the taverns. And she had a daddy,

 

and he had a good job. He was a paperhanger.

 

I guess I would have gotten over Helene by summertime, but something happened in that classroom that

 

made her face hang in front of me for the next twenty-two years. When I played the drums in high school,

 

it was for Helene, and when I broke track records in college, it was for Helene, and when I started

 

standing behind microphones and heard applause, I wished Helene could hear it too. It wasn't until I was

 

twenty-nine years old and married and making money that I finally got her out of my system. Helene was

 

sitting in that classroom when I learned to be ashamed of myself.

 

It was on a Thursday. I was sitting in the back of the room, in a seat with a chalk circle drawn around it.

 

The idiot's seat, the troublemaker's seat.

 

The teacher thought I was stupid. Couldn't spell, couldn't read, couldn't do arithmetic. Just stupid.

 

Teachers were never interested in finding out that you couldn't concentrate because you were so hungry,

 

because you hadn't had any breakfast. All you could think about was noontime; would it ever come?

 

Maybe you could sneak into the cloakroom and steal a bite of some kid's lunch out of a coat pocket. A

 

bite of something. Paste. You can't really make a meal of paste, or put it on bread for a sandwich, but

 

sometimes I'd scoop a few spoonfuls out of the big paste jar in the back of the room. Pregnant people get

 

strange tastes. I was pregnant with poverty. 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. Paste doesn't taste too

 

bad when you're hungry. The teacher thought I was a troublemaker. All she saw from the front of the room was a little black boy

 

who squirmed in his idiot's seat and made noises and poked the kids around him. I guess she couldn't see

 

a kid who made noises because he wanted someone to know he was there.

 

It was on a Thursday, the day before the Negro payday. The eagle always flew on Friday. The teacher was

 

asking each student how much his father would give to the Community Chest. On Friday night, each kid

 

would get the money from his father, and on Monday he would bring it to the school. I decided I was

 

going to buy a daddy right then. I had money in my pocket from shining shoes and selling papers, and

 

whatever Helene Tucker pledged for her daddy I was going to top it. And I'd hand the money right in. I

 

wasn't going to wait until Monday to buy me a daddy.

 

I was shaking, scared to death. The teacher opened her book and started calling out names alphabetically:

 

"Helene Tucker?" "My Daddy said he'd give two dollars and fifty cents." "That's very nice, Helene. Very,

 

very nice indeed."

 

That made me feel pretty good. It wouldn't take too much to top that. I had almost three dollars in dimes

 

and quarters in my pocket. I stuck my hand in my pocket and held on to the money, waiting for her to call

 

my name. But the teacher closed her book after she called everybody else in the class.

 

I stood up and raised my hand. "What is it now?" "You forgot me?" She turned toward the blackboard. "I

 

don't have time to be playing with you, Richard."

 

"My daddy said he'd..." "Sit down, Richard, you're disturbing the class." "My daddy said he'd

 

give...fifteen dollars."

 

She turned around and looked mad. "We are collecting this money for you and your kind, Richard

 

Gregory. If your daddy can give fifteen dollars you have no business being on relief."

 

"I got it right now, I got it right now, my Daddy gave it to me to turn in today, my daddy said. .."

 

"And furthermore," she said, looking right at me, her nostrils getting big 2 and her lips getting thin and

 

her eyes opening wide, "We know you don't have a daddy."

 

Helene Tucker turned around, her eyes full of tears. She felt sorry for me. Then I couldn't see her too well

 

because I was crying, too.

 

"Sit down, Richard." And I always thought the teacher kind of liked me. She always picked me to wash

 

the blackboard on Friday, after school. That was a big thrill; it made me feel important. If I didn't wash it,

 

come Monday the school might not function right.

 

"Where are you going, Richard! "

 

I walked out of school that day, and for a long time I didn't go back very often.

 

There was shame there. Now there was shame everywhere. It seemed like the whole world had been

 

inside that classroom, everyone had heard what the teacher had said, everyone had turned around and felt

 

sorry for me. There was shame in going to the Worthy Boys Annual Christmas Dinner for you and your

 

kind, because everybody knew what a worthy boy was. Why couldn't they just call it the Boys Annual

 

Dinner-why'd they have to give it a name? There was shame in wearing the brown and orange and white

 

plaid mackinaw' the welfare gave to three thousand boys. Why'd it have to be the same for everybody so when you walked down the street the people could see you were on relief? It was a nice warm mackinaw

 

and it had a hood, and my momma beat me and called me a little rat when she found out I stuffed it in the

 

bottom of a pail full of garbage way over on Cottage Street. There was shame in running over to Mister

 

Ben's at the end of the day and asking for his rotten peaches, there was shame in asking Mrs. Simmons for

 

a spoonful of sugar, there was shame in running out to meet the relief truck. I hated that truck, full of food

 

for you and your kind. I ran into the house and hid when it came. And then I started to sneak through

 

alleys, to take the long way home so the people going into White's Eat Shop wouldn't see me. Yeah, the

 

whole world heard the teacher that day-we all know you don't have a Daddy.

 







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