Special Feature
An interview with Basic Black co-author Karen Grigsby Bates
by Kate Heyhoe
Karen Grigsy Bates

Part 1: Home-Training
& Basic Etiquette


Photo: Basic Black co-authors Karen Elyse Hudson & Karen Grigsy Bates

KH: While your target audience of the book is certainly African Americans, I was impressed with how much of the content really extends to all peoples. In a way, it really reinforces that we are all more similar than we are dissimilar. From the perspective of a food editor, I think it is a valuable resource for anyone wanting a guide to social behavior. It is full of that rare and elusive commodity: common sense. Were you aware of its broader appeal as you were creating it?

KGB: We considered our target audience to be black for several reasons: Home training has always been a strong oral tradition in our community, and we wanted to capture many of its elements in print, both for those of us who grew up in that tradition (and who could maybe use a reminder every now and then...) and, perhaps even more importantly, for those who didn't have the benefit of home training and who might find the principles and practices that embody home training useful.

At the same time, we suspected there might be a broader audience for the book, and when we began our press tour, that was confirmed for us in a big way. Reporters who weren't black would scold us about limiting ourselves: In Boston, an Irish-American news anchor told us her children needed the book and she knew "plenty of other folks who aren't black who need it, too!" A Chinese-American environmental engineer bought a copy for himself at a signing in Washington, DC, and returned to buy a half-dozen more copies to give to friends as Christmas gifts. "This is the same stuff I tell my daughter," he laughed, "but I'm glad she'll have another source to reinforce it." The Governor of North Carolina received one as a gift, and keeps it as part of his office library. (Rumor has it he has a big bookmark in the chapter on introductions, "Meeting and Greeting,") and after we were interviewed by Janet Langhart, she took a book home to share with her husband. Her husband happens to be William Cohen, the former Senator from Maine and current Secretary of Defense.

The book is, apparently, turning out to be a bit like that 60s campaign for a well-known bread. Remember it? It showed all kinds of people—nuns, American Indians, Chinese school kids, black grandmothers—happily noshing on a slice of rye. The tagline became famous: "You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Levy's." Well, we think you don't have to be black to read Basic. And sales seem to be supporting that.

KH: You do include information that is missed by other etiquette books. What elements of black culture does this book address that other etiquette books do not?

KGB: We think the information on church and the part it has traditionally played in our community, funerals (another singly important ritual for us), coming-of-age ceremonies and navigating the often-choppy waters of the integrated world—especially the workplace—are all things that have not been addressed in depth vis a vis our unique culture in other books. and we haven't seen the tone we used in any other etiquette book. Essentially, we wanted something more relaxed, more friendly than classic etiquette books often are. We wanted to write a book we'd also enjoy reading.

KH: What is "home training"?

KGB: Essentially, home training is the process of being raised right. It's doing such things as respecting your elders, being a responsible citizen to your community, and taking pride in your heritage while appreciating others' cultural differences. It's being a generous host and a loyal friend. It's courtesy and consideration with a healthy dash of common sense thrown in. It's behaving toward others as you'd like for them to behave toward you.


Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times
by Karen Grigsby Bates &
Karen Elyse Hudson
Doubleday, 1997, $24.95 US/$32.95 CAN
ISBN 0-385-48434-8

Click to buy The New Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times—Revised Edition


Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times


This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Modified October 2005