Ebony An innovative primer....[It] goes beyond the basics to explain how and why these traditions exist in Black America.
How to Be: A Guide to Contemporary Living for African Americansby Harriette Cole
REAL MANNERS FOR REAL LIFE
Etiquette is more than knowing which fork to use. Good manners are the rules that let us find our way in today's rapidly changing maze of lifestyles, customs, and relationships. Anyone who doesn't know these rules is living and working at a real disadvantage.
In How to Be, noted author and editor Harriette Cole/i>/b>
REAL MANNERS FOR REAL LIFE
Etiquette is more than knowing which fork to use. Good manners are the rules that let us find our way in today's rapidly changing maze of lifestyles, customs, and relationships. Anyone who doesn't know these rules is living and working at a real disadvantage.
In How to Be, noted author and editor Harriette Cole treats manners as a resource for the empowerment of people of African descent. She offers guidance drawn from the tried-and-true experience and wisdom of our African-American elders, as well as from European mainstream traditions in many areas of life, including:
Family immediate, extended, and blended
New codes of dating, love, and sex
Entertaining family, friends, and coworkers in both casual and formal settings
Workplace issues from how to resign to what to wear on casual Fridays
Rites of passage, including weddings and funerals
Holiday celebrations like Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Juneteenth and much more
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One: Codes of Conduct
Seek the most perfect way of performing your responsibility so that your conduct will be blameless.
A group of sister elders gathered one Sunday afternoon to talk about what life was like when they were growing up. Oh, the stories they told! Stories of Miss Mary's correcting one of them when she spoke unkindly to her brother, or of Reverend Wilson who preached about the need for folks to treat each other right. They spoke of how it just wasn't acceptable in their neighborhoods to let loose and say whatever you wanted to say or do whatever you wanted to do. You had to have manners good manners. And that meant you'd better be nice to folks, speak to people with a smile on your face, shake hands politely while looking kindly into the other's eyes and remember to say, "Thank you," and "Please," when you're talking to folks. The basics.
The conversation started with everyone chiming in about how different things are nowadays. "Children will say anything to adults," Miss Cora declared, horrified. "They don't have any home training. My Mama wouldn't stand for that nonsense!" What's more, these clays, those old enough to know better don't always speak up to tell a child what's right. People regularly turn a blind eye to children's and adults' misguided actions and words, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of lack of interest.
Everyone agreed that there's a lot of nonsense being allowed in communities now basic stuff that's not being considered as people interact with each other. That old saying, "You can catch more flies with honey," seems to be a thought from a prehistoric age, what with children and adults alike displaying weapons rather than kind words to get their way.
Political activist Haki Madhubuti, founder of the Third World Press, takes this one step further, back to the core of our community structure. "The community plays a pivotal role in stabilizing itself," he explains. "We have to work together to be strong." This means conscious disavowal of individualist ideology or thinking, which essentially is what was given to our community and others as a means to divide and conquer. Working together includes each of you. You must remind yourself that being kind is the honorable way to live, and it builds character. Although it doesn't always seem possible to be kind and strong at the same time that is, if you assume that everything breaks down according to the Western logic that considers information in polar opposites as either/or both can happen, it can be done. Just remember the adage, Don't mistake kindness for weakness. You do have to be ready to defend yourself when the time comes. And, yes, others may challenge you when they see you coming before them wearing a genuine smile or a face of gentle calm. Yet even for people in the toughest environments, kindness can win. Half the time a pleasant state will appear as an unexpected approach that disarms people. In other instances, it can be infectious, rubbing off on a sourpuss to the point that the person discovers a willingness to work as a team player. Give it a try. The challenges will come no matter what. It's flow you choose to face them that defines the art of life. A shield of kindness can be very powerful.
Today, what we often hear people say is "We live in what's supposed to be a free country. Why do we have to follow other people's rules?" Perhaps no more profound question has been asked during the time that I have spent preparing this book. What's the difference between people seeking to explore their own dreams without care for others' interests or needs, and those who work to balance their goals with the needs and desires of others in their midst? African scholars will tell you it's the difference between a Western worldview and an African worldview. If you consider the ultimate need for balance in the world, what is known as Maat in Khamitic (ancient Egyptian) philosophy, the answer is that the difference is "Everything."
The United States is supposed to be the freest country in the world, but what does that mean? What is freedom, in its truest sense? In Webster's New World Dictionary, freedom is defined as "the condition of being free of restraints," as well as "the capacity to exercise choice." Essentially, from a Western philosophical perspective, the quality that this intangible thing called freedom offers is the ability for each of us to think, speak and act as we please potentially without concern for others. Common courtesy and common sense, however, both say that this should not be so.
Theoretically, we can accept that the premise of this country's being a free land of opportunity for all was a noble cause. The reality is that Black folks were left out of the mix from the start as people, that is. The Constitution did not afford people of African descent the same liberties as white folks; they were relegated to being property, or chattel the very properly that early Americans had given themselves the inalienable right to own! Thanks to many bloody battles, our people have been given some of the same rights as other Americans on paper, that is, since being able to exercise them has often proved challenging, to say the least. Still, the promise of freedom on so many fronts is ours to embrace. Learning how best to wear the cloak of freedom effectively is, in my view, the mission of human life.
For African-American people, the journey must begin with a change of perspective. For starters, we must embrace a fundamental truth about our African ancestors: that freedom was very different for them than it is for us here in the United States. From an African perspective, freedom is not conceived in terms of the individual. Instead, African philosophy considers freedom in the context of the community the state in which all members enjoy physical, spiritual and social liberties while simultaneously honoring the needs and boundaries of each other and the community as a whole. From this vantage, freedom becomes an empowering state for all, because it is grounded in an unshakable belief: that true freedom requires responsibility anti respect for your individual Self, your family, your elders, your community, your environment, your ancestors and your Creator.
This way of understanding freedom as communal response and responsibility was all but erased from our collective consciousness by the route that we traveled to get to this country. Individual liberties were stripped away from our ancestors, followed by a series of denials of their even being human. It only follows suit that in the Western world, we have faced varying degrees of discrimination that have left many of us feeling socially disabled even today. Many Black folks are walking around right now not believing that they are empowered even to have a dream, let alone pursue one. Thus, the first freedom to embrace is that which releases you from the bondage of negative thinking. The "I can't, I'm afraid to try..., I don't know how..., No one would let me if..." and other doubtful comments have got to go! Starting with your very words, you must replace negative self-images with verbal affirmations, such as "I can..., I will make a plan..., I am Black and I'm beautiful..., I am worthy of this life." The Reverend Jesse L. Jackson's powerful affirmation, "I Am Somebody!" belongs to you.
Being Black in America means that you are descended from survivors, from people who dared to discover unique and creative ways to enjoy whatever liberties were afforded to them. Today, your responsibility is to walk farther along the powerful path that has already been paved. To do so with style and grace requires a heavy dose of self-confidence (not arrogance), along with humility (not to be confused with self-deprecation, which holds you back; but humility that shows "I don't know everything and can learn from anyone"), perspective and patience. Otherwise, you risk seeming cocky, demanding. This is not a healthy option for anyone, certainly not us. Selfishness, shortsightedness and violence are the very strategies that have been used to oppress us. In most situations, a more subtle approach is better. Enter social graces, protocol, etiquette.
This chapter examines how best to manage your personal freedom in Western life, which requires being conscious, or aware, of how to be, wherever you are. If you think about it, graceful life management is the definition of etiquette for all people. Etiquette represents the guidelines that provide boundaries of behavior for a particular group of people, or situation. Every society has explicit rules, be they written into law or unspoken tenets, so that people can function together in a relative degree of harmony. This, in fact, is the foundation for common sense, which is culturally determined and relevant in daily life. Depending on where you find yourself in the world or in your city, these codes of conduct may change, which is why it is of great value to know what is expected in a certain place before you arrive. Good manners are the foundation of etiquette. They represent a person's ability to honor or show respect for himself or herself and other people their humanity and idiosyncrasies, their commonalities and differences, their selfless ways and their egos, their strengths and frailties.
This chapter will help you begin the process of making informed decisions about your behavior based on the knowledge of what behavior is expected from you in any situation. Here you will be able to explore the basics of being with people from how to cultivate such virtues as kindness and compassion to the art of making introductions and exits.
Developing Good Judgement
One thing is for sure: you must learn how to make decisions for yourself that are both informed and honest. Following anyone or anything blindly is a sure way to ruin, be it spiritual, financial or political. There's a wonderful African story that illustrates this point, as told by Jamal Koram the Storyman:
"You can't always do what you see everyone else do."
A monkey was on the roof. He was dancing and jumping around and making funny sounds. The owner of the house laughed and laughed at the monkey's antics. That afternoon, the donkey, who had watched the monkey, climbed up on the roof, and he commenced dancing and shouting, "Hee Haw," "Hee Haw!" While he was jumping, he made a big hole in tile roof. The owner climbed up on the roof and whipped the donkey. "Get off of here!" he shouted.
"Why are you hitting me when you didn't hit the monkey?" whined the donkey. "You laughed at him." "You, my friend," said the owner, "are not a monkey." "What is good for one is not necessarily good for another."
This story brings to life a fact that many of us don't want to accept: people are treated differently for countless reasons, including race, education, economic status, physical presence, political views, fashion, you name it. You must develop the ability to look at a situation and assess it in relation to your identity, needs and values so that you can respond appropriately in any given moment.
First, you must figure out what your own value system is. Ask yourself, "What do I believe? How do I want to live my life? How do I live my life?" Most people find that the values they were taught as children are their strongest guides. Does this mean that what you learned as a child makes your decisions today?
For Sharon, a sister born and reared in a Christian home in Washington, D.C., that set of easily identifiable values, traits and issues was put to the test. Being in a committed relationship for several years, she and her man, who live now in Brooklyn, New York, decided that they wanted to live together. They found an apartment and were really excited. When Sharon called her mother to share the news, she got a big surprise, Her mother and sister were very upset. "I could hear the disappointment in my Mama's voice over the phone," Sharon says. "She told me that she didn't think it was a good idea for me to live with a man without being married to him, regardless of how old I was or how committed we are to one another." Sharon had to question her decision. Did she, underneath it all, as a thirty-year-old woman, agree with her mother? Did she think she was doing something "wrong"? More to the core of the issue, had she changed her value system from the one that her mother and sister had chosen to judge her decision? As it turned out, Sharon and her man did move in together. Because her values had evolved away from her family's values, Sharon decided to stick to her decision but also to assure her mother that she felt solid in her decision, that she was serious about her relationship, and that even though she did not choose to follow her mother's advice, she was okay. Sharon knew that there would be consequences: her mother might not change her views and never welcome the two of them with open arms while they were living together. Even so, Sharon committed to maintaining a loving and open relationship with her mother rather than shutting down or pulling away.
Sharon not only exercised her personal judgment; she acted as a responsible adult in the way that she communicated with her family. (She subsequently married her man, so everybody is happy.) I could name a dozen other sisters now living in cities away from their families and with their boyfriends who simply lie. "What they don't know won't hurt 'em," is their motto. For some, not revealing information may be the best decision. Why worry Mama unduly if you've made up your mind and you believe she will never understand, and more, that you will hurt her in the process? If you withhold information out of love, it may be fine. Know, however, that retreating out of cowardice holds no honor. What you are ultimately looking to reach is a level of honesty and integrity that allows you to be who you are without apology, with grace. Unless you have this basic integrity, nothing you do can be real.
Countless brothers and sisters who were polled for this book said they felt their value systems were not as much set as a work in progress. Yes, they have certain fundamental beliefs about how to be, but they are open to possibilities. Isn't this kind of change the stuff of life? Change is the one guarantee in this world. Allow flexibility to be an integral part of your life as you develop your discrimination skills, and you can become friends with change and truly go with the flow without drowning!
Learning to Listen
Sometimes the most obvious things are the most difficult to grasp. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that people must overcome is the failure to communicate effectively. Don't assume that others will automatically understand you, or vice versa. Slow down long enough to give yourselves time to be with one another. We need to think more, remember better, listen carefully and not be afraid to talk until we are sure we are understood if it is important and the person is willing to listen. Those mottos that the elders told you over and over again ring loudly now: Think before you speak and If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.
To be able to understand others and what they really mean requires patience, humility and good listening skills, a recipe repeated frequently throughout this book. If you want to actually and fully communicate, follow the time-honored Vedic (ancient East Indian) test, known as the Four Gateways of Speech. The test invites you to ask yourself four questions before you open your mouth: Is it true? Is it timely? Is it necessary? Is it kind? By using these key questions as a filter for what you communicate to others, you will be able to use your words productively as you go about your day.
Learning to listen is the essential ingredient in successful communication and cannot be overemphasized. When you are in someone's company, start off by making friendly eye contact and then greeting the person with a warm, firm handshake and a smile. As your conversation develops, listen for key words or phrases that can serve as guideposts to the person's message and attitude. When you are unsure what he or she is trying to say, gently interject a question that rephrases what you believe to be the core of the person's intent: "Do you mean that...?" If you are incorrect, you may follow up with, "I'm not sure I understand yet. Would you tell me again what you mean?" By participating in your conversation using an even, friendly tone and showing sincerity through your words and body language, the other person will probably be happy to help you come to a clear understanding of what he or she means.
Two prominent psychologists, a married couple, Derek S. Hopson, Ph.D., and Darlene Powell Hopson, Ph.D., wrote a wonderful book, Friends, Lovers and Soulmates: A Guide to Better Relationships Between Black Men and Women (1994), in which they spent time exploring how to have a successful relationship. Following is some guidance from them on the art of assertive communication:
It is important that a non-threatening climate be established to encourage meaningful dialogue. Nonverbal cues are also an important part of assertive communication. Making direct eye contact, listening attentively, sitting in a relaxed manner and nodding at appropriate moments all convey a message that you are a respectful, attentive and open-minded listener.
Too many discussions begin with a negative statement: "We really have a problem," or "You messed up big time." This approach immediately puts the other person on the defensive and heightens a confrontation. Using "I" messages is much more effective: "I need to have more time to myself." "I felt hurt that you did not call me to tell me you were going to be working late." "It is important to me that you visit my family more often." With an "I" message, you accept ownership of your own feelings while also affirming and validating those of your partner [or the person with whom you are speaking]. This sets the stage for candid dialogue.
Although this may seem laborious at times, it's worth it. Adding to the Hopsons' strategy, I suggest that you also ask questions about the other party's feelings. Find out what the person was thinking when he or she made a particular comment. Take the time to really hear what the other person intends to communicate.
If, after making a concerted effort, you still fall short of getting the person's meaning, invite someone nearby to help you out. Sometimes language or cultural differences make it hard to deliver or grasp a clear message. That includes cultural usage of the same language, like between Caribbean and American use of English. Keep trying until you get there, though. It's worth it.
What Is My Standard?
So often I've heard folks complain after the fact that they are mad about how somebody treated them. "I can't believe he did that to me!" or "How dare she talk like that in front of me?" And the list goes on. I too have been a singer in that chorus. Chances are, so have you. There are times when you have probably accepted wrongful action from others too.
Dating back to our deceptive roots in this country, our ancestors bore the brunt of tremendous hardship that was downright inhuman. Even back in those horrific days of our Maafa, there were those who said "No," who refused to compromise the standard of how they saw fit to live their lives. The Ibo of Nigeria stepped off the slave ship and walked into the water to drown rather than endure the unendurable. Nat Turner and Henry Hyland Garnet, Denmark Vesey and Haiti's Jean Jacques Dessalines led uprisings, challenging slave owners to free their people from the wretched bondage forced on them. Harriet Tubman led people through the dead of night into the light of freedom, fortified by the knowledge that as African people, they deserved to be free of the oppression that was destroying their families.
Through the decades, it has been the same. Leaders have sprung up among our people, propelled by the spiritual and temporal knowledge that life had been and should be different, that what they believed in their hearts to be the righteous way to live was reattainable. Think of Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr., Taharqa of Nubia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, the Kentake queens of Ethiopia (Candace) and Yaa Asatewaa of Ghana, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Dorothy Height, Huey P. Newton and Nelson Mandela.
What does that say for the common folk? For you and me? When we hear stories or witness tragedies of physical and emotional abuse in the home, at work, on the street, what can we do? We must use our brains and our bodies to change our lives. When I worked at Essence magazine, I used to hear editor in chief Susan Taylor say all the time, "We have to become active in our communities. We can't afford to sit back and let things happen. We have to do something." Susan implored all of us on staff to get involved in community organizations that help people to become strong. She also reminded the readership of the magazine and the staff on a regular basis to find their source of strength within first.
Starting at home is key. Discovering who you are and what you believe is the only way that you can stand firm among others. You must take the time to find out what your standard is for living in this world. What are the nuances of that standard? Where does it come from? Is it working? Are you and the people you learned it from happy with other people, and not at their expense? And more, once you know what you believe, promise yourself that you will not sink below that basic level. It is when you are unsure or weak as well as when you don't love your Self that you allow abuse of many kinds into your life. Learning how to be a productive and viable member of the community requires that you become strong. As you discover how to be, you will find that support is all around: through your faith, your family, your community, brothers and sisters throughout the Diaspora and many other bright lights who illuminate the path. You simply have to open your eyes to see them. Sister Iyanla Vanzant, bestselling author of In the Meantime (1998), and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up (1998), often reminds us that miracles happen every day. We just have to be prepared to see them.
Let There Be Virtues
There has been a lot of talk, especially in political circles, about the reinstitution of "family values." A Black family revolution is in order! Many of our families are in crisis. They suffer tremendous stress due to economic insecurity, unsafe neighborhoods, latchkey children lacking supervision, single-parent households without the community support that we used to have and a general lack of constructive value development in the home. We must invigorate the village, allowing it to reinvent itself through us, in our daily lives. Starting in our own families, we must make the commitment to embrace those qualities of goodness that build integrity for ourselves such as hard work, honesty and kindness as they also inspire others to be the best that they can be. Some call them virtues. So did St. Peter in the New Testament. In a verse that talks about the importance of choosing to live by our divine nature rather than the aspect that has been corrupted, he says:
And...giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue, knowledge;
And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience;
And to patience godliness;
And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. (II Peter 1:4-7)
The way to energize the village is by example. One by one, you can study the virtues of life and make them your own. From our own historical tradition, you can learn the forty-two admonitions of Maat, which espouse how to live an honorable life. (See the chapter "Your Spiritual Life" for a listing of them.)
Honesty, is the best policy, and it starts at home. Daily meditation, prayer and contemplation in the morning and in the evening support honest, conscious living. In every spiritual tradition, it is recommended that you begin your day by asking the Creator through prayer for blessings to carry you through each moment. Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther who now lives in San Francisco, says, "Throughout the day, I look to see how my actions might affect others. By stopping to pay attention to that, I can tell what I should do next. Coming from a place of honesty is the basic criterion, and it requires tremendous willpower and contemplation." That doesn't mean that you have license to say anything you think, whenever you think it. Brutal honesty just telling it like it is can hurt feelings. In comes your good judgment or discrimination. Without being dishonest, you can selectively determine when it is appropriate to reveal to others your assessment of any given situation. You have to be kind to yourself first to be able to reach a space of true honesty in your life. Meditation on God an effective tool for unlocking that honest place inside doesn't always reveal sweet thoughts and feelings either. Sometimes tumultuous things come up. Old concepts may get shot down. Memories of past actions may shake your steadiness at its core.
You may discover that a foundational area of your thinking must change, because it was based on faulty understanding. All of this is good. It means that you are allowing yourself to go through spiritual growth. As you discard the layers of baggage that you have been carrying around for years, you will find that lightness and gentleness can be your daily companions. It just takes time.
This is exactly what Gwynn Gladden's father taught her when she was growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "He taught us not to throw rocks. He taught us being honest was not when somebody was looking. It was when they weren't looking. That's how to stay honest, how to stay true to yourself," Gladden, a librarian, explains. "My father taught us to learn to stand for what you believe in and to stand by yourself when no one else will stand with you." By being honest with yourself first, you can then find the proper and honest way to be with others.
Compassion has been the cornerstone of the development of African-American culture. We have been genuinely sensitive to the suffering of others and interested in relieving it. Our generations-old cry has been for fairness. We have stood up for our rights in hundreds of ways, demanding to be treated fairly while also appealing to others' human nature, to their compassion their ability to empathize with and support our struggle. "How could it be," so many of our ancestors have asked, "that one cannot see the plight of African-American people as a fundamental effort toward goodness and integrity for all?" If you look historically, you will see that appealing to a sense of morality hasn't worked very well. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in a letter from his Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, on April 16, 1963: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." His words, though true, have gone largely unheeded. That double standard again. Fairness has frequently slipped from our grasp since our earliest days in the Western world. Still, we have the choice to reconnect to the African belief that we can offer love and respect to each other to offer comfort and compassion to all. Taking the time to consider others and offer compassion is a sign of respect, an example we must set for our children and for others who need the reminder.
This applies to family members and romantic relationships, too. As quick as you may be to support coworkers, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers or the neighbor down the street is as tough as it can be to look on your loved ones with compassionate eyes. And when you are too hard on your family, chances are you're beating up on yourself as well.
Think of your grandmother rocking slowly in her chair watching the scene at hand. Her feet aren't shaking. She's not trying to race you to your goal. She's just observing and rocking. In this fast-paced world, people are so quick to expect everything NOW. The job, the money, the man, the woman, the car, the house everything NOW. Folks also want understanding, compassion and love pronto. In truth, this is the mentality of a child. In an adult it reflects a mentally immature attitude. Life doesn't always come to you as you want it. You often have to wait. Having patience requires faith and builds character. It means letting go of wishing for something thai someone else has and resting in the certainty that what is yours will come. This doesn't allow you to sit around and do nothing, however. Patience must be coupled with honest and steadfast work in order for you to reach your goals. It's just that you can't expect to meet your objectives and be satisfied when you get there if you don't relax and enjoy the journey. Every moment does count. By living fully in the moment, you can lead a productive, serene and exciting life. Resist the temptation to worry over past action or plot too hard about what's next. Live in the moment; live for the future; learn from the past; avoid old mistakes. You can exercise the patience that allows you to enjoy the here and now. Only then can you lead a conscious and inspired life.
What do you do when you are walking down the street and you see someone you know? Do you make eye contact and nod your head? Look off quickly in the other direction? Quicken your pace so that you can greet the person and strike up a conversation? Duck into a nearby alley? Going out of your way to avoid someone is generally not the best strategy to employ. If you see someone you recognize as you are intent on doing something else, a nod of the head with a friendly gaze will suffice. If you keep your pace even and your focus on your goal, the person will see that you have something else to do. If the other party, on the other hand, clearly wants to strike up a conversation, you can easily greet the person in stride and let her know that you are very happy to see her but that now is not the best time to talk. End your communication with a warm yet firm "Have a great day," and be off.
That's only one point of acknowledgment. So many occasions present themselves when you see people. How you choose to recognize them does matter, so think about how you normally respond to see if your behavior matches your true intention. Here are some guidelines to consider:
• When you see someone you know, greet the person with enthusiasm. Speak clearly when you say "Hello." Say the person's name: "Good afternoon, Mrs. Williams. It's so nice to see you."
• Extend your hand and gaze at the person as you greet him or her.
• As you are going about your day and you see familiar faces, offer a smile. Stay centered comfortable and content within your own being so that you don't overdo it. You cannot spend all of your
Meet the Author
Harriette Cole is the author of Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner; the Jumping the Broom Wedding Workbook; How to Be: Contemporary Etiquette for African Americans; Coming Together: Celebrations for African American Families; and Choosing Truth: Living an Authentic Life. She is the owner of profundities, inc., a life-coaching and image development production company, where she has worked with stars such as platinum-selling recording artists Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, and Mary J. Blige. Cole writes a New York Daily News nationally syndicated advice column titled Sense & Sensitivity. She lives in Harlem in New York City with her family.
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