"I'm From the South... Can I get the door for you?"
The philosophy of Southern Chivalry
...That was the second thing I said to my wife on our first date.
It was February of 2020, we met at a Harlem café after talking on Hinge for a week, and I was fifteen minutes early to a date I'd postponed by an hour at the last minute. I thought I'd ruined my chances before the first sip of a latte. Fast forward two years– We’ve been married for nine months, and here I am writing this to you from a café in Dakar, Senegal, having quit my job to join her on her research year in France & West Africa. …And that’s the “TLDR” of a long story.
Yet, in a sense, everything I’ve experienced hinged on that single sentence; a revelation and a request, containing the breadth of my life.
“I’m from the South... Can I get the door for you?” illustrates the affective experience of being a White Southern dude who grew up in a small town outside of Atlanta, left Georgia to become a writer in New York City, had play productions in NYC’s downtown experimental theatre scene, taught English at a Harlem High School, went on a date with a beautiful Black woman, married her during a global pandemic, then quit my job to travel through France & Senegal in support of my wife’s academic career.
“I’m from the South... Can I get the door for you?” captures what it feels like when you’ve become a new husband and you’re crossing multiple cultures on three continents during a time when the world seems to have turned upside down. It describes the duality having internal conflict, while also finding a sense of meaning.
“I’m from the South... Can I get the door for you?” means living in worlds that are supposed to be at odds with each other, and then the discovering that they aren’t at odds at all. That’s what this newsletter is about.
In the words of one of my favorite literary theorists, Kenneth Burke if
“We can see our everyday behaviors in terms of eternity" then we can "consider each thing in terms of its total context, the universal scene as a whole".
For me, this is a call to examine the deeper philosophical meaning behind our everyday behaviors. I believe that this kind of thinking allows us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. In these articles, I might show y’all the connection between Boxing and theories of Beauty, how cicadas mirror classical music, or even the cross-cultural significance of eating collard-greens. One way or another, each article will take abstract or ‘academic’ ideas and explore how they apply to the real world. I believe this kind of thinking allows us to be more empathetic, and to live a more examined, and ultimately fulfilling life.
So, y’all, let’s start by diving into the philosophy behind the Southern manners I employed on that first date with my wife.
Southern Chivalry is taught
My Dad's mother taught me Southern Chivalry. As soon as I turned thirteen, my grandmother told me,
"Britt, it's time for you to learn how a gentleman is supposed to treat a lady".
I want y’all to imagine that sentence spoken with a 'Scarlett O'Hara’ accent. You know, the one where “hammer and nails” sounds like “ham-AH an’ NAY’els”.
That accent is dying in Georgia, but it’s alive in my Mommianna. It was in that accent that I was instructed in the ways of Southern manhood. Those lessons from my grandmother went something like this: Wherever we went, Mommianna would walk ahead of me and wait at the door until I opened it for her. Whether this was the door to a five-star restaurant, a Cracker Barrel, or one of the shops on the square of my hometown of McDonough, GA, she always waited for me to hold it open for her. Then, whenever and wherever we dined, she would stand by her chair until I pulled it out for her.
When I turned sixteen, I started driving the l957 Bel-Air my Dad and I restored. I’d take Mommianna around town, and when I parked the car, she’d sit in the passengers’ seat until I came around and opened the door for her. Don’t get me wrong, my mother and my mother's mother (my Nanna) expected the same behavior from me. Yet, it was my Mommianna who made me understand that a simple gesture will communicate the content of a man’s character.
How to Hold Doors as a Southern Gentleman
Based on what I learned from her, and what I observed growing up in the South, here’s my breakdown of the “rules” for how Southern Men hold doors.
A Southern man always holds the door for a woman, regardless of her age.
A Southern man goes out of his way to hold the door for an elderly woman.
A Southern man holds the door for older men, as a sign of respect for his elder.
A Southern man does not hold the door for a man his own age.
A Southern man holds the door for a family, but if the father is the same age, all women, children, and elders enter first, followed by the door holder with the father holding the door for the door holder.
… A Southern Man always holds the door for a lady.
Of course, if any of y’all would like to amend those rules, feel free to leave a comment.
White Folks “Code-Switch” Too...
One way or the other, by the time I moved to Brooklyn, getting doors, chairs, and coats for women was just a habit.
It’s the way things are done... In the South, anyway. If my memory serves correctly, the first time I got yelled at for holding a door was sometime in the fall of 2012 at the entrance to a dive bar in the West Village. Out of habit, I walked in front of a woman in her early 20s, opened the door, got a blast of 2010s Indie rock, and received, “I can get my own door, thank you!"
I didn't understand. I thought there must be something repulsive about me. She must have thought I was flirting with her, right? Then I had to ask myself... “Was I flirting with her?” The truth is that, on some level, I probably was. At the same time, I was just acting how my Mommianna raised me to act.
Those two motivations coexisted in a single ritual. This cultural duality has become symbolic of my entire life since leaving the South.
The longer I lived in NYC, “I can get the door myself” rang out as a regular refrain in front of office buildings, coffee shops, and those village dive-bars. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t like the other White men in the West Village. Perhaps if I’d given a, “My apologies m’am” sounding like damn Matthew McConaughey, I would have been more well-received. Yet, I’d done my best to kick my accent. So, here was this short White guy, just holding doors all willy-nilly for the women of NYC. I came to understand that in New York, the manners Mommianna ham-ah’d into me symbolized a patriarchal view of the world where it’s okay for men to deny women the literal ability to move through time and space. It’s either flirtation, subjugation, or both. And lawrdy, you better learn that if you’re going to migrate to Brooklyn.
I’m not going to spend this article defending or deconstructing the power dynamics of Southern manners. There are honestly some sound arguments across Critical Theory against Southern Chivalry, mostly in that it’s a pattern of behavior that serves to reinforce the patriarchy. However, there’s honestly nothing that’ll make your grandmother madder at the Yankees than the fact that they’ve gone and stolen the manners she taught you, just six months after you moved up North. For me, Southern manners were a sign of respect, and if I went home and didn’t show that respect to my family, it hurt them. Simple as that.
After studying Critical Race Theory, I understand that my experiences of Southern difference are rooted in ‘intersectionality’, which is
“the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, sexual orientation and how that combination plays out in various settings”.
My social interactions would change as soon I got off the plane at Hartsfield-Jackson, and then again the minute I deplaned at LaGuardia. This, I’ve learned, is called ‘Code-Switching’.
Code-switching is another term from CRT that means to
“read the codes or rules of engagement in a particular social field, identify which ones have value, adopt them, enact them, and through this process, form powerful connections to new people”.
That’s how I learned to flip the ‘Southern’ switch on in Georgia, then flip it right back off again in New York City.
“Southern Manners, meet Feminist Discourse”
Anyway, y'all can probably see how the stakes felt high outside that coffee shop. After all, this was a date with a professional academic, a Critical Race Theorist, and an Historian of Africa attending an Ivy-League school for her Ph.D. Moreover, on Hinge, her answer to the prompt, “Message me if..." was "...if your feminist discourse matches your actions". I was terrified. Yet, I was writing a novel about interracial love in the South, set between 1933 and 1967. Her dissertation was about interracial marriages between the French & Senegalese from 1939 to 1984. “We should meet,” she said, and I enthusiastically replied, “Yes, we should”.
So there I was, nervous as hell, asking “I’m from the South, can I get the door for you?” Her response was a “yes”, coupled with that smile I’ve come to know and love so well. She said later that the thing that sold her was the fact that I asked. I gave her my background and I asked her permission. That was all it took for my Southern manners to translate beyond assumptions of patriarchy and oppression. Some months later, she told me that her first thought after I asked that question was, “Thank God, this means he'll pay for coffee!” Because, apparently, Yankee men don’t pick up the bill on a first date. Well, that two-hour date lasted sixteen hours, and we ended up getting engaged less than six months later after quarantining together in Georgia during COVID-19, later making our home in Harlem during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. All of this after a Southern White man asked if he could hold the door for a Black woman, and she said “yes”.
The Symbolic Meaning of Southern Chivalry
My two favorite literary theorists, Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye, shed light on the deeper meaning behind my door-holding. For a little background info, Burke was a prolific writer who developed the theory of Dramatism to explain human relationships on and off the page. Frye was a Canadian professor who explored universal themes in mythology and literature, developing ideas associated with Archetypal Theory. Taken together, I think their philosophies show us that acts of Southern Chivalry are rituals that represent single individuals, their communities, and their histories, and that rituals can communicate who we are. They co-exist with other cultural rituals. Taken together, ritual can bridge those divides between people; the bridges that have come to define my life. Hopefully, by unpacking those first few words on that first date with the woman I love, you can come away with a greater appreciation for the things you say to the people you love.
Kenneth Burke’s idea was that you can look at pretty much any human relationship, or interaction through the lens of Drama. When we speak to one another, we’re like characters in a play. Our actions and words are made up of symbols. In a nutshell, his idea is that when we do or say certain things, we are representing bigger, deeper ideas than what we think we mean. We do this without even realizing it.
So, y’all, let’s consider the scene. I walked in front of her, I told her where I was from, asked for permission, then held the door.
The sentence “I’m from the South... Can I get the door for you?” was a "symbolic action that is a reflection of reality” and “by its very nature as a terminology, must be a selection of reality; and to this extent, it must also function as a deflection of reality".
Through that lens, I was able to symbolize the reality of being Southern. I was selecting the best parts of that reality, and deflecting the worst (i.e. racist, misogynistic) elements of Southern reality. I was able to express the entirety of a culture, a history, and a way of being on my terms in eleven words and one gesture. I managed to show my whole self to this person I'd soon call my wife.
Southerners have a reverence a for these gestures of chivalry. Since there is a reverence for these actions, I believe these actions serve as rituals. Here, I’m drawing from Northrop Frye, who looked at the uses of ritual in our everyday lives and their connection to literature. In this sense, I believe that those behaviors, words, and customs inherent (but not exclusive) to the South, are a part of us. We open doors, mind our manners, and stand up straight to symbolize of our families and communities. The same goes for biscuit-baking, front-porch swinging, and yes, the ability to fire a Winchester. (I'm about as pro-gun-control as you can get, but I'd wager even the most liberal Southerner still knows how to keep the stock against the shoulder, plant their feet apart, aim just a hair to the right, and squeeze it real gentle.)
So, like Frye, I welcome a deep discussion of the "social and cultural history” inherent to Southern ritual. I’d be at best naïve, and at worst immoral to ignore the South’s history of racial violence & oppression. Yet, as Frye says, the "more clearly the anthropological and the critical treatments of ritual are distinguished, the more beneficial their influence on each other will be".
It’s those “problematic” rituals that bring us together.
All of these Southern customs are open to criticism, but none of them are inherently “bad”. They are rituals that let us express who we are. They're able to capture an “emotional geography” with an extended vowel and an outstretched hand.So, in my mind, a Southern man opening the door for a woman is similar to Catholic liturgy or the Islamic call to prayer. A Southerner’s Mam’s and Sir’s, or the holding of doors are the same Athens, Greece as they are in Athens, Georgia. Yes, the rituals are different in Dacula, GA than they are here in Dakar, but all human beings engage in ritual. Rituals express the essence of communities, and they give us the ability to communicate the deepest parts of ourselves to different individuals across space, time, and culture.
I don’t know what the folks of one-hundred and sixteenth street thought of us, walking down the sidewalk to Central Park on our first date. Regardless, my wife and I get different reactions to our relationship, depending on when and where we are. Folks see a 5’3 White Southerner holding hands with a 5’9 Afro-Latina, and some smile, some curse, some just stare at us. The best of the gawkers, I imagine, must see us as so different that “it just can’t work”. The worst of them, I imagine, think “...it just ain’t right”. Well, as we say in the South, “Bless their hearts”, because what they don’t know is that, although we look different, we share many cultural similarities. In this, we share many of the same rituals.
From our first date onwards, we found those commonalities. I like to joke that my wife and I come from a long line of mountain moonshiners... It's just that her ancestors did it in the mountains of Puerto Rico while my Pawpaw' s people made corn-likker in the foothills of Appalachia. Both of us were raised in faith-communities with nuclear families. Both of us come from cultures that place an emphasis on familial relationships, where food centers tradition. We share a cultural background that places an emphasis on marriage, "traditional” gender-roles, and yes, chivalry. That being said, my wife is a scholar of gender, race & sexuality, well versed in Feminist Theory and, like me, she is critical of Patriarchy' s propensity to oppress Women.
So, how do two people reconcile the more "problematic" aspects of their respective cultures with a mutual appreciation for where they came from?
I think when the phrase "problematic" is used in cultural discourse, we tend to hear that word to mean "bad". When something is "problematic", it presents a problem within itself; nothing more, nothing less.
So, sure, a Southern man rushing to hold doors for women is problematic, but it is not without value, goodness, and meaning.
Living as a Southern White Man in West Africa
I haven’t lost those Southern manners since arriving in Dakar. In fact, I’ve gotten a deeper understanding of these rituals. My favorite sounds are the ritual calls to prayer from the mosque that rises over the skyline near our apartment. I don’t speak Arabic, speak only a few words of Wolof (one of the local languages in Senegal), and am learning French, slowly but surely. So, the meaning of those words that ring out five times a day are initially lost to me. For now, they are music that serves to remind me that there are a multitude of people here who pause their routine to engage in a ritual of worship. I don’t use the same rituals when I worship God, but I find beauty in the fact that people have enough faith that they’re willing to make worshiping God the top priority in their day. Honestly, (I think more than a few Baptists could learn a thing or two from them.)
Of course, these sounds are also a reminder of difference. After all, I’m a White man from the South living in West Africa, so I come from a civilization erected through the enslavement of human beings. Many of the enslaved were from this city I now call home. They looked like the people who are showing me hospitality and kindness. They looked like my wife. As my former students would say, those are “facts, period”. And, they’re facts that I refuse to run from. However, I don’t feel guilty for being a White guy, nor do I think that ‘Whiteness’ has to keep anyone from forming relationships with people who are different than them. That’s why I do my best to denounce White supremacy and advocate for the are oppressed. Sure, some of y’all might call that being ‘Woke’, but I’m pretty sure my Dad and my Pawpaw would just call it “standing up for folks, no matter who they are or what they look like”. I think it’s called “standing up for my family”.
All this is to say that listening to the call to prayer makes me grateful that I was taught Southern Chivalry. It’s a reminder that I, like these folks I’m living next to, have my own set of rituals that I carry with me, no matter where I go. See, “Holding the door for a lady” in the South is like sticking to your side of the communal plate when eating ceebu jën with your host in Senegal. It’s like kissing the air beside the cheeks of your Parisian friend when you meet for a glass of vin rouge at a café on the Seine. It’s like giving dap to your boy when you run into each other on Malcom X Blvd. It’s a ritual that symbolizes an entire culture with a sense of reverence, much like those daily calls to prayer. It’s communicating the content of your character in a gesture.
Create a Community With Me
In my next post, I’m going to talk about what it means to “imagine” our communities, and how I’m creating my own community here in Dakar. I’ll be drawing on a few historians, and maybe even a little “anarchist” philosophy. In the meantime, let me acknowledge that I’m incredibly blessed. I’ve followed my dreams, fallen in love, and am seeing the world. Very few people from my background get these opportunities. Yet, moving between continents and cultures makes it difficult to pause, savor, and express gratitude that. It’s these complex ideas, like archetypes, symbolism, and intersectionality that help me appreciate the moment. I think that understanding the profound meaning contained in simple experiences, like “holding the door for a lady”, allows us to be grateful to be alive. Of course, those experiences are meant to be shared, and their meanings are meant to be communicated. That’s why a gentleman holds the door for a lady, but a Southern gentleman asks first.
Burke, Kenneth; Definition of Man ,The Hudson Review
Delgado; Sefancic; Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press, 2012. p. 58
Emdin, Christopher; For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’all Too”: reality pedagogy and urban education. Beacon Press, 2016
The foundation of Burke’s ideas is his "Definition of Man”. According to Burke, human beings are "symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol misusing" animals. See Language as Symbolic Action.
Burke, Kenneth; Language as Symbolic Action, University of California Press, pg. 45
"Ritual, as the content of action, and more particularly of dramatic action is something continuously latent in the order of words and is quite independent of direct influence". Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957. p. 109
Ibid. p. 110
This is the process of mapping similar emotional experiences between individuals & groups across time and place. See L. Colpa’s (ABD, Columbia University) work on Emotional Geographies.