Special Feature

Basic Black: African-American
Etiquette, Advice and Social Customs

An interview with co-author Karen Grigsby Bates
by Kate Heyhoe
Black Etiquette book

Picture this: You walk into a restaurant and despite apparently free tables, the hostess tells you you'll have to wait. Eventually, she seats you—not at the window booth or by the lovely potted ferns, but way in the back by the kitchen, where noise, plates and rushing waiters spill through the swinging doors. It is not a pleasant experience. What do you do?

When you're offered an offensive table, tell the maitre d' firmly, "I'm sorry; this isn't acceptable. We'd rather sit over there, please." If you're told they're all reserved, simply smile and insist "I'm sure you'll work something out," and remain standing until you get a better table." If the matter isn't resolved to your satisfaction, you may choose to leave and take your business elsewhere.

Such is the sage advice of two women whose book, Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, teaches etiquette in a way it's never been approached before. Their target audience may be African-Americans, but the information they provide extends beyond racial boundaries. The example above suggests the type of treatment received by many African-Americans (as reflected in the landmark court ruling in which Denny's restaurant chain was found discriminatory against black patrons). Yet, for many non-blacks, the scenario described could also happen to them—perhaps by not dressing tony enough at an expensive NY restaurant, or not being a celebrity at a posh West Hollywood bistro.

Some social customs are specific to an ethnic or racial group—such as the way food plays such a strong role in black funerals. Other social rituals and rules of behavior apply to us all. As co-author Karen Grigsby Bates says, "There's not black manners, brown manners and white manners. There's only good manners and bad manners." In Basic Black, she and co-author Karen Elyse Hudson present both a comprehensive and concise compendium of what constitutes good and bad manners for us all, but within the added context of being an African-American. By increasing our sensitivity to all races, it is a valuable read for non-blacks as well, and business professionals have found it a valuable reference too. Moreover, as the title suggests, it really does provide etiquette for modern times, with contemporary examples ranging from being stopped by the police to joining a health club to dating services, online romance and personal ads. But what I liked best about the book is its sense of compassion, its reinforcement of values. It's OK to be kind to others, and it's also OK to be sensitive to your own self-esteem.

Karen Grigsby Bates has been a long time reader of the electronic Gourmet Guide (since 1995) and her letters to the editor have appeared at various times in the past. We happened to find out about Basic Black, though, through a review in the LA Times. After reading it ourselves, we couldn't wait to share it with you, our readers, and we asked Karen to tell us a bit more about the book in this interview.

Oh, one more thing: besides offering a modern viewpoint of manners, Basic Black includes all the customary rules of etiquette you would expect—which fork to use, weddings, parties and sections that are particularly appropriate right now: what to give for Mother's Day, Father's Day and Graduation. The only gift suggestion the authors left out is the one we would pick: a copy of the book Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times.


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