Southern Style: Kindly Manners

March 4, 2011 Updated: March 4, 2011

I just wrapped up a 1500-mile road trip through my native land—the Deep South. Southern people’s kindly manners touched me.

In the Blue Plate Cafe outside of Memphis, a tall, stooped man with white hair and a young woman were waiting for a table. He had a cane exactly like her cane, and playfully presented it to her, “Look, we match!”

They held their canes side by side. He asked why her cane was taller than his, when he was taller than she. They talked about her physical therapist’s recommendations, and how she was injured falling from a tree. She had a spinal cord injury and was just emerging from months in a wheelchair.

“I’m really lucky,” she said.

“Bless your heart,” he replied.

In Jasper, Ala., I stopped for the night. I told the hotel desk clerk that I was too tired to drive any further. “Bless your heart,” she said.

While crossing in front of my car in Nashville, a man smiled and tipped his Stetson hat.

A large group of hip-hop-attired men at my hotel in Germantown, Tenn., mysteriously all well over 6 feet tall, always beckoned me onto the elevator and through the doors first with courtly gestures. Almost everyone, everywhere, smiled and made eye contact.

It is hard to square the peoples’ kindly manners with our region’s bloody history. This region invented Apartheid. South Africa literally copied our system. Terrorist groups enforced the system with lynchings, rape, and murder. How can people be so kind, yet have such a violent past?

I have a theory. I have traveled on America’s two main mother continents. Europeans are not open and friendly quite like this. Africans are.

When I traveled in Africa, I was fascinated to find that everything I consider a down home meal—what my Mama used to make—was a down home meal there: sweet potatoes, greens, okra, and cornbread. I kid you not. I was also fascinated to find that the people were open and gentle, just like they are in the rural South. Almost everyone, everywhere, smiled and made eye contact. They easily spoke of their lives and ideas with strangers.

Tennessee state Rep. Joe Towns told me: “Black people changed America. We changed the world.” He was speaking of Martin Luther King’s ideal of non-violent social change. He was speaking of people having the courage to throw off bad leadership or a bad social system without becoming bad themselves. The context was the uprisings in the Arab world. People there have used some of the ideas from the American civil rights movement.

The African value of ubuntu is where Kingian and Gandhian non-violence comes from. According to the World Forum of Civil Society Networks, ubuntu “is an age-old African term for humaneness—for caring, sharing, and being in harmony with all of creation.” It includes being warm and welcoming to strangers, and being forgiving.

My theory is that the tragedy of countless African people being kidnapped to America became a paradoxical blessing to the world. Those Africans contributed cultural treasures. Some are tangible and obvious, like music, dance, and cuisine. Some are intangible, like ubuntu.

The African virtues migrated here with the people. The open manners you might find in the Kingdom of Lesotho traveled to the County of Pulaski and softened discourse there. The philosophical underpinning of ubuntu migrated, too, and wound up transforming a social system.

Bless our hearts.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mary Silver
Mary Silver writes columns, grows herbs, hikes, and admires the sky. She likes critters, and thinks the best part of being a journalist is learning new stuff all the time. She has a Masters from Emory University, serves on the board of the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and belongs to the Association of Health Care Journalists.