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Basic Black

Home Training for Modern Times

Basic Black by Karen Grigsby Bates
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Etiquette for real people who live real lives. In Basic Black, Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen Elyse Hudson have gathered those elements that are, well, just basic to making life more livable–and they’ve added something specific to modern life. The information in Basic Black goes from "CP Time" to "Don’t You Dare," from addressing your wedding invitations to addressing a police officer who has perhaps arbitrarily stopped you as you’re driving through the city. It covers traditional etiquette, such as table settings, being a good host, letter writing, and tipping. Basic Black covers the essentials of black American tradition: joining a church, mentoring young people, planning a funeral, family reunions, participating in clubs and organizations. In addition, some delicate areas seldom discussed in other etiquette books are addressed here, such as race in the workplace, handling service people who are less than enthusiastic about having black customers, and keeping your job and your temper when racial slurs are used in your presence.
As Bates and Hudson like to note, etiquette is about more than just which fork goes where: "As far as we’re concerned, no one will die if you use the wrong fork, but we’ll each lose a little piece of ourselves if we choose to live our lives without genuine respect for morality, character, kindness and other people."

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Crown/Archetype; March 2002
496 pages; ISBN 9780767910927
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Basic Black
Author: Karen Grigsby Bates; Karen E. Hudson
Chapter 1


"If you're going to play the game properly, you'd better know every rule."
Barbara Jordan

Here's where we run through the basics. And basics are the foundation upon which good home training is built. You know what the basics are; you learned them in Sunday school. Or at the knees of your mother, grandmother, and aunts. And though the hectic pace of daily life sometimes threatens to hide that foundation, you know that if you reach deeply enough, you'll find the basics right there when you need them.

Manners transcend social status, race, and gender. Courtesy and consideration help to make the unbearable parts of life a little more bearable. And you probably know, from having met one (or better, being one yourself), that a person who is considerate of others is welcome almost anywhere.

All major religions have a simple phrase that distills what good manners are: doing unto others as you would like others to do unto you. This Golden Rule applies to friendships, workplace relationships, romances, and family interaction--virtually all human relationships.

The basics of good manners (besides the above) include the very things that, in another age, were referred to in our culture as "home training." We're sure you remember them. They include the following:

Respect for Elders

-Standing (if sitting) when being introduced
-Offering to pull up a chair or help put on a coat
-Offering a seat when on public transportation
-Speaking respectfully (saving one's slang for one's peers)
-Offering to serve as an extra pair of arms and legs:
"May I bring you some dessert, Aunt Emma? Let me tell you what's on the buffet table."
"Would you like me to reach that for you? Those cereal boxes are always stacked up so high!"
"Excuse me, but you dropped your change purse."

CP Time

We all know what CP time is. But when we let our personal clocks dominate Greenwich mean time, all kinds of trouble happens. (We've been told this is not endemic to "colored people"--a Jewish friend assures us there's JPT, an Italian IPT, etc.) If you're going to be late meeting a personal friend, try to call so she's not kept waiting. Definitely call ahead as soon as you know you won't arrive at a business or professional appointment on time. (Here's where cellular phones can be a blessing: "I'm calling from my car; a big accident up the road has tied things up for miles. I'm afraid I'm going to be at least twenty minutes late; would you check to see if he'd still like me to come, or should we reschedule?")

The same should apply to an appointment with a doctor, lawyer, or hairstylist: call and let them know you've been delayed for reasons beyond your control, ask if it will still be convenient for you to come, or, if not, if you can reschedule the appointment. People often don't mind trying to accommodate you if they feel you've shown them a little consideration. For someone who owns his own business or who bills by the hour, time is literally money. And this works two ways: doctors should not keep their patients waiting, either.
Note: Do not have a chronic excuse. If you're always late for a haircut because of "heavy traffic" or some other excuse, sooner or later your stylist will simply factor in your habitual late time and make you wait. If you always overbook your patients or clients, sooner or later they vote with their feet and move elsewhere.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Sometimes excuses are unavoidable: your child becomes sick at the last moment; you get a flat tire; your plane leaves late. In those cases, you explain briefly what's delayed you or forced your deadline back: "Janet, I'm so sorry. We were planning to come to your party tonight, but Courtney has a sore throat and a temperature. I hope we haven't inconvenienced you too much."

For work, you need to indicate that you're aware the delay may cause problems and will try to clear things up as soon as possible: "Mr. Sanders, my mother-in-law died this morning, and I'm afraid I'm going to be gone for the rest of the week. I plan to take the Jeffrey account with me and I hope to have my recommendations to you by next Tuesday."

Never invent an illness or death as an excuse for not completing an assignment or meeting a deadline. If you're not ill but don't wish to go to a social engagement you've already agreed to attend, think of an excuse that doesn't require you to "gift" your family (or yourself) with a dire fate you'd like to avoid in real life. Remember what the old folks say: what goes around comes around.

Public vs. Private Manners

Don't make the mistake of being more courteous to strangers or people upon whom you wish to make a good impression than you are to your own family and close friends. The same rules of consideration apply: there is no such thing as second-class manners (or if there is, we don't want to know about it). Everyone in your life should be treated as if it's vitally important that he or she thinks well of you.

And Brother, Remember

It may be your sister, your wife, your girlfriend, or a casual buddy at work; when you honor and appreciate your relationships with women, you'll be surprised at what you receive in return.

Race and Good Behavior

"Act your age, not your color" used to be how some folks reminded others that the world expected lesser standards of us because of our race. When we behaved poorly, we were "acting like . . ." well, you know. And when we behaved well, we were considered a "credit to our race." Both phrases assumed that black people were one big population, one lumpen stereotype. Good behavior, like manners, transcends race, gender, and even age. Reflecting well on oneself should be the rule of thumb.

Respect for Other Cultures

Variety is the spice of life, and the patchwork of different cultures and ethnicities is part of what makes America such a vibrant country. As we continue to evolve into what sociologist Marshall McLuhan called a global village, our exposure to and comfort level with other cultures increase. And we learn that what is acceptable in one circumstance may be offensive in another. In some Asian cultures, for example, a recipient wouldn't think of opening her present in front of the giver; in the Western world, we consider it important to open a gift when it's given to us. It's always a good idea to ask if you're not sure: "Mai Lee, when we go to your sister's wedding next Saturday, how should we dress?" "Robin, do women have to have their heads covered to visit your mosque?" The key here is to be as sensitive to another culture's traditions as we would want others to be to ours.

Welcoming People into Your Home

From the first time we came to these shores, even in the dark, lean times, we have been a hospitable people. So honor that tradition. When folks stop by to see you, tell them you're glad they've come to visit. Offer them refreshments. Warn them if you have pets they may be afraid of or allergic to: "Do you mind cats? We'd be happy to put KitKat in our bedroom while you're here." You want your guests to feel comfortable, and people are always more comfortable outside their own environment when they know what the rules are. If you don't smoke and don't want others to do it, either, a lack of ashtrays is usually enough of a hint to the astute guest. If someone doesn't catch the hint, feel free to let him know it's okay to smoke outside, but not in your home: "Oh, Jay, we don't smoke here. You can use our patio/balcony/sunporch if you need to, though."

When "No" Is All You Need to Say

Some things need no explanation, just a blunt, clearly understood "no." Never feel you have to explain why you'd prefer not to:
-Accept an alcoholic drink
-Indulge in drugs
-Consider an improper sexual overture
-Participate in anything you consider illegal, immoral, or unethical

Making Things Right When You've Offended

They're the faux pas from hell, and they happen to all of us at one time or another: You've spoken badly about a woman who's turned out to be the listener's best friend. Your child, while tearing through someone else's house, bumps a table and a vase smashes. Your date mortifies you at a dinner party by drinking too much and making a pest of himself for the rest of the evening.

A sincere apology goes a long way toward easing bruised feelings. If you've spoken badly about a person who turns out to be a dear friend of (or worse, related to!) your listener, 'fess up: "Oh, gee, that's your sister? Me and my big mouth! I'm really sorry. Maybe we were both having a bad day when we met, but we did not get along."

If you or someone with you has broken a host's belongings, point it out, immediately offer to make repairs or replacements, and ask where the item was purchased: "Oh, Marcy, I am sorry! That was a beautiful vase. If you'll tell me where it came from, I'll call tomorrow and see if it can be replaced." (Your host may decline the offer, but she will appreciate the fact that you've made it.) In the case of irreplaceable objects, such as antiques, make profuse apologies and an offer to make amends for the appraised value of the item (even if you may have to pay it off in installments).

And if your inebriated date makes a fool of himself and puts a dent in everyone's evening, apologize to your hostess. And make your date (who, we hope, will be smart enough to figure this out on his own) send the hostess a written apology the next day. (Flowers wouldn't hurt, either.)

Can You Hear Me?

Unlike stereos, people don't come with dials or knobs you can use to turn down their volume. For the habitual shouter (and some people aren't aware that they are being loud), it's best to quietly take him aside and tell him he's decibels above everyone else: "Aaron, do you think you could speak just a little more softly? We can't hear the news at the other end of the room." Most people appreciate the hint.

Lateness of the Hour

Most of us don't lead lives of leisure. If invitations specify that dinner is from 8 to 11 p.m., don't inconvenience your host by staying on until 1 a.m. (The exception, of course, is when the host urges you to stay.) If the social event is held on a workday, it's especially important to leave promptly. If you arrive late to a social event, you should still leave when everyone else does.

Keeping Up with Social Mores; New Places

If you've got out-of-town guests who want to go club-hopping and you grab the Yellow Pages to look up "Nightclubs," you might want to think about updating your personal resource file. Keeping track of new restaurants, clubs, museum exhibitions, and so on doesn't take much time, and saves you from hectic, last-minute scrambling when you're trying to entertain your guests--or when you and your friends are looking for something to amuse yourselves. Snip interesting possibilities and keep them in a folder or shoe box so they're handy when you need to browse through them.

Table Manners

You remember these basics, we're sure: Elbows off the table. Squelch the urge to stretch past someone to retrieve what you want (your older relatives might have called this the "boardinghouse reach"), and ask that the desired item be passed, please. Resist the urge to place your napkin anywhere but in your lap: don't wear it like a bib (unless you're under two, or you're eating lobster in a restaurant) and by all means, don't tuck it into your belt! Ladies should remember to discreetly blot their lipstick, to lessen the chance of leaving hard-to-remove stains on a hostess's napkins and glassware.

When There's Only You, or a Very Few

Don't assume the burden for the race--although, in all likelihood, it will be handed to you from time to time anyway. Try to be patient with people who want to know how "all black people think." Emphasize that your opinions are your own and that you haven't polled the community at large: "I can't speak for all of us, but here's how I feel about raising standards in public
schools." Recognize that for the culturally deprived, you are a new experience and that some lessons may have to be taught as well as learned: "Jean, I don't mind you asking about my hair, but I'd prefer that you not touch it."

Try to keep a sense of humor about the brave new world the noninitiated are entering. It's entirely possible that small children who have never seen black people may stare or even ask to touch you. Follow your instincts; children are often avidly curious, and you may make an impression on them that will last for a lifetime: "See, Shana, my cheek feels just like yours, but it's brown, just like chocolate milk."

Racial slights may occur, and when they do, certainly you shouldn't feel obliged to suffer in silence in the interest of racial harmony. People need to know they've offended you, and why--but they'll absorb the fact that they've made a major error if you can point it out calmly: "Jack, my mother never allowed that word in her presence, and I'd just as soon not hear it, either. Black people simply are not described that way." The civilized person will promptly apologize. (The uncivilized person may not, in which case you may feel free to remove yourself from his presence and seek more amiable company.)

Calling people racist is usually counterproductive. Pointing out racist behavior, however, can curb those tendencies in the future: "Mr. Jennings, I'm sure some people find that pretty amusing, but I think that kind of humor is racist--and totally unlike you." (What's Mr. Jennings going to do when you've pointed out his boorish behavior so politely? Protest that he is indeed a racist and tells these jokes all the time?) By condemning the remark and observing this behavior as atypical of the speaker, you've left the speaker with room for an apology: "Oh my God, Michelle, I don't know what got into me. You're right--that's not my kind of joke, and you won't hear it from me again." (For more on this, see chapter 23, "Plantation Life.")

It's also important to pick and choose when to point out such offensive behavior. Like the boy who cried "wolf!" the accusation of racism is much more potent when the occasion truly merits it.

Pledging Allegiance; the National Anthem

African Americans' relationship to the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem has been constantly evolving since the 1960s. Regardless of our political or religious beliefs, the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem are for some as revered in American society as "Lift Ev'ry Voice" is. Many of our relatives fought and died on behalf of the United States in several wars so we could have the privilege of freedom.

When the Pledge of Allegiance is recited, no matter where you are, stop and stand at attention. This is done everywhere,
from elementary schools to community meetings, and it's an unbendable rule. If you think "and liberty and justice for all" stretches things a bit, simply stand silently at attention. If you choose to recite the pledge, do it clearly and in time with those around you. When our national anthem is played, stand and sing it. (If you don't know the words, learn them.)

From the Trade Paperback edition.