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Why Manners Matter



By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Sunday, September 16, 2018.


I am a 52-year-old African American man.  My parents had little materially to give to me, but they did impress upon me the importance of having manners.  For me that meant that the adults in my South Bronx neighborhood, however familiar, were always addressed as “Mister” and “Miss” (I was still too young to parse distinction between Miss, Mrs. and Ms.).  I carried those manners with me into my college years, when I was mentored by a young Minister in the Nation of Islam, who addressed everyone as “Sir” and “Ma’am” – even those who in the rhetoric of the early days of the Nation of Islam, might be referred to as “White Devils.”  Addressing folk as “Sir” and “Ma’am” is as natural to me as breathing, though recently I’ve had to reconsider the practice in light of the increasing use of gender neutral pronouns.


It was an innocuous interaction – a thoughtless “thank-you sir” directed at a local barista – that was until the barista took a long pause and a deep sigh before, completing the transaction.  I immediately recognized the impact of my gender assumption, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to immediately explain that I meant no offense, because frankly, I was embarrassed. A month later, same coffee shop, same barista, and as I began to offer my thanks with another gendered pronoun, I literally muffled my words, not unlike the way a parent might leap to cover their child’s mouth.


I shared the story with my 15-year-old daughter, who was rather matter-of-fact in her lecture to me about gendered pronouns – this from a teenager for whom the use of non-gendered language has been part of her normal socialization; not so much for her so-called “progressive” father who continues to struggle with the shift.


Weeks later I wasn’t thinking about any of this during a trip to a fast-food chain, and engaged another African American man, probably only a few years younger than me. This was of course not his dream job, but it was a job.  And based on the fact that he was still toiling at it late in the evening, it’s likely a job that was paying for some things that matter: rent, food for a family, transportation for that family. 


However we might deride those workers who make our food fast, if not always pleasurable, it is a job that deserves as much dignity as any. His demeanor was what you might expect from a grown ass man handing another grown-ass man a bag of burgers and fries; I acknowledged him with a “thank-you Sir” and his demeanor immediately changed, as if it was the first time all day that somebody recognized him as a man – a human.


The salutations of “Mr.” and “Sir”, like “Mrs.” and “Ma’am”, of course has a complicated history for Black folks, even of my generation, who might have memories or been told stories of mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncle and aunts, who were called “everything but a child of God” to quote James Weldon Johnson.  To be addressed with a proper honorific and surname was a gesture of respect for a generations of folk for which respect was not a given in their everyday social interactions with Whites.


There was a part of me that wanted to believe that this Black man’s response justified my commitment to gendered pronouns, but realized that missed the point.  Like the African Americans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, folk who are pushing to “decolonize” gender pronouns are doing so for the very reasons that my elders wanted to be addressed the way that they demanded: to be recognized and respected in the public sphere for who they see themselves as in the world.  In this regard we – I  – must  do better.


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Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies and Director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship (CADCE). Neal is the author of several  books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, and co-editor, with Murray Forman, of That’s The Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (now in its 2nd edition).  Neal is host of the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.



Why Manners Matter

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