Segregation didn’t have a ton of advantages but one of them was the communal assumption of a shared group of values. For instance, when you passed someone on the street, whether it was someone you knew of a stranger, you spoke, or nodded or otherwise recognized the presence of another human being.
Lately I’ve been talking with a lot of bemused parents who are entertaining scenarios something like this:
Child: “Mom, did you know that lady?”
Mom: “No. That was the first time I ever saw her.”
Child: “Then why did you say hi, if she was a stranger?”
Whereby the astonished parent looks at her offspring (whose child are you anyway?) and explains “because black people always acknowledge each other. It’s what we do.”
In most cases, anyway. When I was pretty young, I remember seeing the 1936 drama The Petrified Forest on our old black and white TV. Some robbers had taken over a diner in the middle of nowhere and basically held the few people in it hostage for a few hours. One of the criminals was black, as was one of the hostages—a chauffeur for a wealthy white family.
At some point the robber turns to the chauffeur, nods and says “good evening, colored brother.” Colored Brother sniffed and turned aside. I think I remember him muttering something about "trash" and turning back to his white people. (Massa, is we sick?)
I about nine, but even then I knew that was just wrong.
So educate the young folk about what I call the Universal Negro Nod. We do it on our home streets and in strange towns. We do it when we know folks by sight and when we’ve never seen them.
And when Junior asks “how come?” tell him we are carrying on a cherished and time-honored tradition of acknowledging each other’s humanity—an especially important thing to do because so many don’t. Still.
It’s not an occasion for a hustle or a come-on. “How you?” should not be followed with “can I hold $5?” or “why’nt you give me your number?” The UNN is just a way of saying “we may not have come over on the same boat, but we’re still in the same boat.”
And shame on those who turn their noses up and look the other way.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a LA-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
Etiquette emergency? Write us at AskComeCorrect@gmail.com and remember that your letter could be published unless you request otherwise.
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).