Old School Black Home Training: The I-Need-A-Recommendation Edition

A while back, I promised that I would start a series of blog posts that would “tutor” folks on old-fashioned African American manners. I thought no one would like that idea, but to my great surprise, I received a lot of encouragement to continue my series—and not just from Black people. Apparently, White, Native American, Latino, and Asian folks are fed up with folks of all complexions with no home training, too. So, I decided to keep this party going.

My latest home training lesson has to do with people who are in search of a professional favor, and how they should  act when asking for that favor. (Thus, the “hand out” in the picture.)  I’m writing this post now because this is letter of recommendation season, and a lot of folks are reaching out to older and/or more accomplished folks for letters of recommendation. For those of you who are doing that, I want to pull your coat before you make a fool of yourself. Even though the title says “Old Black School Home Training,” again, this is for all all races, complexions, backgrounds and genders.

As someone who is not famous in the least, but who nevertheless holds a tenured university appointment, I do have plenty folks who come to me for professional favors. These favors fall under what is called “service,” which is the equivalent in the academic world of community service. In other words, I don’t get paid for professional favors; all I get is a “thank you”—hopefully; we’ll get to that in a minute—an “I’m nice” feeling inside, and some credit from The Man/Woman Above.

Professional favors include things like letters of recommendation. These can be for students for graduate school or jobs, for professional peers’ tenure file, or for mentees’ fellowship applications. Also, writing a blurb for the back of someone’s book is a professional favor. All of these things—a job, a spot in graduate school, tenure, a fellowship—help to move someone’s career forward. So, I ask you, why is it lately that when someone asks me for a favor, all but a very few of these people don’t act like it’s a favor?

For example, a few years back, a young Black woman who had asked me to be her mentor and who had used me for a refernce asked me for a letter of recommendation. Correction. She wrote me and said: “I need you to send a letter of recommendation to this particular place.” No “please.” No “thank you.” No “I really appreciate your time.” Unh-uh. None of that.

So, I wrote the young woman back an email and told her that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but even when someone was a friend and little “play-sister” to me, her approach was not an appropriate way to ask someone for a letter of recommendation. I was thinking of my younger self—the self who didn’t have a lot of sense– when I took the time to write that email and I took pains to include lots of kindness because I didn’t want to be cruel. Though I didn’t say so, I know I didn’t always act the best in the past and I wanted to give her an opportunity to get herself together.

But you what? She didn’t get herself together. This child wrote me back a four page email letting me know I was very condescending. I didn’t even bother respond—or pray for her rude self, either. I just gave her The Heisman Hand and went on about my business, which would be working on my own writing hustle.

But now, I see kids/young folks/even very grown folks who are perfectly nice but who have no idea how to approach folks for favors and I feel badly about deleting their emails—even as I’m scared to personally correct. So, I’ve included below some things to consider when asking someone for a professional favor.

#1

If you were a student of someone and you know you dogged that person out on the teaching evaluations, don’t ask for a letter of recommendation. Similarly, if you have thrown shade on somebody in a public forum and you know this might have gotten back to him or her, do not have the colossal nerve to ask him or her to recommend you for a job, fellowship or tenure.

Why would you want someone you don’t respect to recommend you for something? What kind of sense does that make? Nonsense, is what kind.

#2

If you haven’t talked to this person in a long time, you should consider putting off asking him or her for a professional favor until you can get reacquainted. If you don’t know him or her at all, don’t even think of asking for a favor. Facebook friends does not count, okay?

I have had students from eight years ago show up at my office or write me looking for a letter of recommendation, and not only don’t I not remember the student’s name, I don’t even remember his or her face. If you live close by, consider visiting the person in the office, or offering to take the person out to coffee or lunch. He or she may not take you up on the offer, but the gesture will be appreciated. Or, start up an email correspondence before you launch into what you need.

#3

If you are asking a much older person for a professional favor and you have never been on first name basis with that person, don’t assume familiarity by call him or her by first name.

Put a handle on that name, like “Professor” or “Ms,” even if this person taught you twenty years ago and you now have gray hair. Some people don’t like familiarity. Don’t be lecturing them about that, talking about times have changed. Just don’t be familiar. Don’t you need a favor?

#4

Do not begin your professional request email or phone call with “I need such and such.”

Look, even if you are close friends with someone, who wants someone to who has what my mama calls “a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much-obliged”? Ease into your favor. Ask how the person is doing. Make some polite small talk before you start talking about what you need.

#5

Let the person know that you know how valuable his or her time is and that you understand if the answer to your request is “no.”

I’m busy as all get out. I’m always working on a book. I start working on the next book while I’m finishing the present book, because I don’t like Postpartum Book Depression. So when someone asks me for a favor, I have to set my work aside for a few days to get that favor done. And let me tell you, no writer ever wants to do that, but I will for a polite, kind person.

#6

Even if you have known someone for a while or this person has written you a letter of recommendation before, do not assume recommendation is a gift that will keep on giving. Approach each favor with a lack of presumption.

I despise presumptuousness in folks. I remember all that correction from my mother, from my granny, from Black teachers, from ladies in church, from my mentors, and even Black female strangers I would encounter at the Walgreens. I didn’t put up with all that correction and do all this work on myself for some little poo-butt who barely knows how to pee straight coming at me assuming that my professional time is his time. Frankly, I appreciate reticence when someone asks me for a favor because I’ve always been reticent when I asked someone for my own favor.

#7

Even if you believe you are the professional equal of someone, remember that your asking someone for a favor puts you below that person professionally—if only for a moment. Act accordingly. That means act with some danged humility.

For about two years now, I’ve been having Black poets I know roll on me for favors like blurbs, manuscript reading, and letters of recommendation, yet they always roll on me with a “hey what’s up” attitude, like we are equals. I had a stranger ask me for a blurb and say, “You should be familiar with my work from such and such journal.” Uh, no, I’m not. Not only hadn’t I heard of her, I hadn’t heard of that journal, either.

Unless you have accomplished what I’ve accomplished, you are not my equal, and I don’t care how much “dap” and how many free t-shirts you get at the Associated Writing Programs bookfair. And further, if you were on my level in the first place, you wouldn’t need a letter of recommendation from me; I’d need one from you. So act like you know.

#8

Do not try to micro-manage your recommender’s letter of recommendation. Meaning, do not tell your potential recommender what he or she needs to include in the letter. This is very rude and might get you The Heisman Hand.

When someone gets the recommendation form or logs into the online recommendation site, it will tell the recommender what needs to be included. Plus, most of us have done this at least fifty times. We don’t need your input, unless there is no form and no site. And even then, just say, “Professor Doe, it is suggested that you address such and such in your letter, although that is completely up to you,” and we’ll get the hint, okay?

#9

Finally, follow up with gratitude after the professional favor has been received.

A “thank you” email is the very least you owe someone who has done you a professional favor. But what is more appropriate is a thank you card. It’s unethical for someone to suggest that you give gifts in exchange for his or her doing you a professional favor, and so, that will never come up. But if you choose to send a “thank-you” gift all on your own, no one is going to turn down your gift, either.

And if you receive that job, admission into graduate school, fellowship, or tenure, you need to let that person know that you are aware that the letter of recommendation helped you reach that goal. Remember, consistent gratitude is key to asking and receiving professional favors—because you never know when you might need another one.

Old School Black Home Training: Part 1, Signifying

First uploaded on realdeepblues.blogspot.com

For the past few months, I’ve been threatening (to my friends) to start a new feature about manners on my blog.   Sure, there’s Miss Manners and all her books, but let’s face it. Miss Manners ain’t Black.  Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Listen, there are different ways of moving through the manners minefield in the Black community. Traditional Negroes have an extremely involved set of home training going way back to 1619. And there is a whole bunch of us Black people who remember.

For example, back in the 1970s when I was a little girl, bad manners could get your butt whipped—or in the country, switched—all up and down two or three blocks of your neighborhood by everybody’s mama–everybody’s Black mama, that is. And then, when you got home, the news would have gotten there first, and your own mama would not only whip or switch you again, she would call up the other folks who whipped or switched you and thank them for correcting you.

And why did all this happen? Because all those Black mothers–your own and someone else’s– were trying to keep your narrow, rude behind off the chain gang, which is where badly behaved Black kids—especially Black male kids—go when they get grown.

But these days, I’ve noticed that in the African American community, there’s a real rise in Negroes acting like they don’t have no [insert expletive adverb] home training.

Now, there are just admittedly some African American fools out there who weren’t raised right. And some of them Negroes, we just have to let go. Some people’s parents were raised by wolves or something, and then, they mated with other people who were raised by wolves, and then they made them some human wolf-babies. So, all those wolf-people need prayer and that’s all we can do for them because they cannot be helped.

Again, I said it. It had to be said.

But there are some Black folks with good parents who were raised right, but then those raised-right folks left home, got in with the wrong crowd of human wolf-people, forgot what their mamas taught them and started making up–or unmaking— home training rules as they went along, like this world is some Tyler Perry version of Lord of the Flies.

And here’s the deal: I don’t pay no attention to those human wolf-people.  But unfortunately, I’m starting to also bump into these Lord of the Flies folks all over the place, folks who can fake manners long enough to sneak through the cracks of polite society but still haven’t figured out, they can’t act in certain ways and get away with it forever. Sometimes, they even roll on me 1) trying to be my good friends, 2) trying to be my boyfriends (who will one day have sex with me if they are extremely, extremely lucky and go to the mall and buy something nice for me), or 3) trying to get me to help them get jobs—putting my (hopefully) good name on the line for them by writing letters of recommendation.

This lack of Old School Black Home Training among Negroes who should know better is a tap-dance on-my-nerves contest. And then, I am placed in the very uncomfortable position of either giving these people The Heisman Hand—meaning, totally ignoring them—or lecturing them on their bad behavior.

But here’s the problem with The Heisman Hand. As I get older, I feel a deeper sense of responsibility to my Black community. I think about all those old people—including my mama—who took time with me to have those conversations and pull my coat to correct me, even when I was a young knucklehead with none of the sense I had been born with.

But then, when I move into The Lecture—trying to be a Race Woman–all I get is either a promise to do better–a promise which is quickly broken–or backtalk from people trying to tell me they haven’t done anything wrong in the first place. Both of those reactions make me mad and want to cuss folks out. But because I do have me some manners, I can’t cuss folks out. (No more.) So now, instead of cussing folks out, I am faced with the possibility of personal conflict—meaning, engaging in calm discussion with my transgressor. And that is going to involve a back and forth. Which I hate. I cannot stand some back and forth.

Y’all, despite the bold way I roll in public, I really don’t like to have personal conflict/calm discussion, because I’m afraid of going back to the Angry Black Woman Who Will Cuss You Out—an ABWWWCYO—who I was long, long ago in my twenties.  I really, really enjoyed being that person, I can’t lie. My Id and I were on first name basis. But then, I had to get me a job and work on my credit. Since most good jobs in America involve working around White folks, I had to learn to behave. Because White folks cannot stand an ABWWWCYO.

And for the third time, Yes, I said it. It had to be said. Stop being surprised when I say what we all know to be true but are just too embarrassed to admit in print. I’m not embarrassed in the least, which is why you read this blog.

So now that I have evolved into a bit of graciousness and maturity, I avoid personal conflict/calm discussion like the plague. Now, on my job, I can’t always run away, so I have learned a series of polite, labyrinthine strategies for conflict resolution. But in my personal life, whenever I imagine the back and forth that will ensue, I just seize all up–unless it’s my mama. You can’t seize up with your mama.

What does “seizing up” mean? That means, I delete all the contact information of that person and pretend he or she doesn’t exist anymore.  When the phone rings and I recognize the number, I just switch off the ringer and also, switch off that place in my mind that liked or loved that particular person. Emails are easy. I can avoid emails indefinitely. (Unless, of course, they involve my job or my writing hustle.)

But if I bump into the person I “seized up” with somewhere, and that person wants to have a personal conflict/calm discussion, I’m not having it. Because I’m thinking, why did you act like that in the first place if you really wanted to be 1) a good friend, 2) a boyfriend (who would eventually have sex with me if you were extremely, extremely lucky and went to the mall and bought something nice for me) or 3) somebody I wrote letters of recommendation for?

So I just move into Southern Belle Pretend-Warmth and Charm, smile brightly, and say, “You know what?”—my voice getting breathy and sweet—“I’ve got an appointment right now. But it’s so good to see you. And let’s talk about this later. Just give me a call. Or email me.”

And you know the rest.

For those of y’all who have been getting to know me through this blog, you know that I’m all about growth. And frankly, I do realize that it’s just not emotionally healthy to run away from personal conflict/calm discussion.  I really, really know that. And I’m working on it. I started thinking about all the Lord of the Flies people I have encountered in the past who needed The Lecture but who I was just too cowardly to confront head on and instead, gave The Heisman Hand to. I know that was kind of, like, passive aggressive. So then I thought, maybe I should just write a series of Old Black Home Training lessons for this blog, and that way, I can feel a little more powerful in the future and not so cowardly.

But also, there’s an added bonus to this new feature on manners, because although I am working on dealing head on with conflict, you know what I haven’t started working on quite yet?

Signifying.

Y’all, I’m just not in that completely healthy emotional place yet, and if I can’t avoid personal conflict/calm discussion, I can still signify on a [insert expletive maternal noun] like nobody’s business on my own blog. And if he or she happens to be reading this blog and recognizes him- or herself in a particular post, that’s definitely not my intention in the least and a complete and total coincidence.

I promise. And let’s talk about this later. Send me an email. Or call me.

.

.