A few months ago I was on a long plane ride when something rather startling happened: Someone sitting near me was actually polite. He was in the seat immediately in front of mine, and before reclining he turned to look over his shoulder and asked—asked!—if I would mind if he leaned a little bit into my tiny bubble of cabin space.
I later saw him at the baggage carousel and decided to say hello. I was further amazed to discover that it was easy to converse with him. We exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned how surprised I had been to encounter a polite passenger on an airplane. He bashfully demurred. I asked whether he had been in the military. Yes, he had. I can usually tell, I replied. From there we soon turned to hometowns: he, Dallas; I, Metairie, Louisiana. A little jocularity about our football woes, and then we shook hands, addressed one another as “sir,” and went our separate ways.
The man was black.
Encountering a dignified person in public is in itself newsworthy these days, but beyond good manners my interlocutor had the social grace that used to be common down home. By all contemporary accounts, my fellow passenger and I should have been at each other’s throats. Slavery, et cetera. And yet, there was nary a hint of awkwardness. He was just plain well mannered. Our interaction,...