Def­i­nitely Not Your Par­ents’ Prom: Philly’s Elab­o­rate Send-Off Cul­ture

The Oakdale Leader - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

PHILADEL­PHIA — Sau­dia Shuler promised there would be ac­tion.

Last year, the North Philly mom made na­tional head­lines af­ter drop­ping $25,000 for a prom send-off. You might re­mem­ber the camel she hired for the Dubaithemed bash she threw for her son, J.J. Eden Jr. When it came to cre­at­ing a send­off this year based on the film Black Pan­ther, let’s just say she sensed which way to go.

Her pan­ther, Queen, stayed caged and mostly quiet on a re­cent Wed­nes­day evening as hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered, scores in cos­tume, on 22nd Street near Shuler’s soul food restau­rant. Who would ben­e­fit from Shuler’s largesse this year? She had held a sort of cast­ing call for the fete; she chose Dayanna McBride, a grad­u­at­ing se­nior at the Yes Philly school from South Philly as the star of her show, which went up al­most im­me­di­ately on so­cial me­dia.

Prom send­offs are the party be­fore the party. The ba­sic premise — an op­por­tu­nity for rel­a­tives and fam­ily friends to fawn over the prom-go­ers — goes way back. These days, how­ever, in Philly’s black com­mu­nity in par­tic­u­lar, the prom send­off can be much big­ger than the prom it­self.

Many fam­i­lies have jour­neyed past the liv­ing room photo ops with trays of light bites. It is com­mon now to see black moth­ers or­der­ing cus­tom photo back­drops and en­list­ing DJs and pho­tog­ra­phers. We’ve wit­nessed a James Bond-theme pro­duc­tion where a lucky cou­ple trav­eled by he­li­copter. Who needs to bor­row Mom and Dad’s wheels when one can rent a Rolls?

Shuler’s brand of pageantry is at another level al­to­gether. Her “Wakanda Comes to Philly” was a send­off, surely, but it was also a live show, a film shoot, a catered din­ner and block party.

One set of ac­tors dressed as the all-woman mil­i­tary guard from Black Pan­ther’s myth­i­cal sub-Sa­ha­ran na­tion, while another set rep­re­sented the Jabari tribe. Dance and drum­ming flowed through the event. There were airs of the su­per­hero block­buster film, but also of Com­ing to Amer­ica.

Quian Brown, McBride’s date, made his en­trance af­ter the ac­tors feigned to be at the brink of bat­tle. “I feel like I’m the Man,” Brown said later.

McBride’s fi­nal prom look (she had two dresses) was a gold cus­tom dress by Brit­tany DeShields with a train car­ried by Wakan­dan war­riors. When she reached their Tesla, hired for the night, McBride smiled glee­fully.

What’s changed? In­sta­gram et al.

It’s so­cial me­dia that has changed send­offs, say par­ents and prom pro­fes­sion­als. Videog­ra­pher Brian Hill can’t see why else he’d be get­ting so many re­quests for prom movies: “Ev­ery­one wants it so that they can post it.”

Teens talk of prom sea­son as a time when they con­tin­u­ously watch through their feeds. “Ev­ery­one looks so nice,” said Jayla Gar­ner, a grad­u­at­ing se­nior at Girls High School. “It’s kind of ex­cit­ing, and then I get ex­cited for my­self, like, ‘Oooh, I’m next.’ “

The most op­u­lent or poignant images from send-offs may reach the Shade Room, a black gos­sip out­let with 13 mil­lion fol­low­ers.

Bayeté Ross Smith, a pho­tog­ra­pher and mul­ti­me­dia artist, pointed out that while schools of­ten pro­hibit teens from pos­ing and ges­tur­ing or in­clud­ing fam­ily at the dance, the rules re­lax at send­offs. “It be­comes this vis­ual lan­guage for brand­ing our­selves, par­tic­u­larly in terms of pub­lic per­sona,” Smith said. In an age where likes and fol­lows are mark­ers of sta­tus, the black youth of this city are pre­sent­ing them­selves. “What you’re see­ing,” Smith said, “is a re­claim­ing of our nar­ra­tive on a day-to-day ba­sis by young peo­ple.”

A typ­i­cal send-off goes this way: First, a hyped-up en­trance to mu­sic as the cou­ple de­scend stairs out­side of the home. Then, por­traits be­fore an ex­otic photo back­drop. Lastly, more photos with the car — for­eign mod­els have lately been more pop­u­lar than stretch limos. As kids de­part, loved ones linger as if they’re at a fam­ily get-to­gether.

Mar­cus An­thony Hunter, a South Philly na­tive and UCLA so­ci­ol­o­gist, said the fam­i­lies are seiz­ing joy at these elab­o­rate events. “It’s still a city where at Star­bucks, they can call the cops on you,” he said of Philadel­phia. “It’s still a place where peo­ple are get­ting dis­placed and dis­pos­sessed. But on this day, we choose to cel­e­brate that ‘my baby looks so beau­ti­ful.’”

At Aa­jae Whitehead’s send-off, she struck her poses be­side her grin­ning boyfriend, Travoni Hun­ley. Aa­jae’s mother, Aquee­lah Whitehead, had spent nearly $4,000 on the dress, the shoes, makeup, hair, DJ, food, dec­o­ra­tions and a pho­tog­ra­pher, among other ex­penses. Af­ter a school fight last year, Aa­jae landed at a new school and new so­cial or­bit. She had con­sid­ered not go­ing to prom at all.

Even with the tran­si­tion, she’s fin­ish­ing high school on time and head­ing to culi­nary school.

Myah Bush, Aa­jae’s god­mother, was deeply proud and wanted to cel­e­brate. See­ing the young peo­ple shine, she said, is sim­i­lar to liv­ing vi­car­i­ously through them, espe­cially for el­ders who didn’t go to prom or grad­u­ate high school.

Cin­derella’s car­riage and James Bond’s chop­per

For Shuler’s 24 char­ity prom send­offs this spring, she paid for high fash­ion and fancy re­cep­tions with the help of donors culled from her own net­work. She se­lected three of the teens for large pro­duc­tions: a Cin­derella theme from the Art Museum with a horse-drawn car­riage, a James Bond theme, and then the Wakanda af­fair.

She won’t say how much this cost, nor will she dis­close her do­na­tions. Still, she es­ti­mates that all told, count­ing con­tri­bu­tions from oth­ers, the to­tal bill reached six fig­ures. Her In­sta­gram ac­count, @coun­trycookin1, has 154,000 fol­low­ers.

Not all par­ents are game. An­gela Mapp, a West Philadel­phia life­style blog­ger and screen printer, sees no need for a food or decor bud­get. Be­fore her son, Ryan Mid­dle­ton, heads to the dance, they’ll be tak­ing photos with bal­loons.

“I think we as a black peo­ple get stereo­types of be­ing flashy,” said Mapp, who would pre­fer to in­vest in school or a trust fund. “I just feel like there’s other ways that money could be spent.”

Her son said he wanted just close fam­ily present for his send-off, but doesn’t crit­i­cize the hoopla.

“To­day,” he said, “it’s all about pre­sen­ta­tion.”

Mid­dle­ton wore a royal blue suit with gold ac­cents and sparkling gold loafers. He was hop­ing he’d look like the rap­per Ji­denna. A pre­colo­nial tra­di­tion Tan­isha Ford, an Africana stud­ies and his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Delaware, said op­u­lence can be traced to pre­colo­nial tra­di­tions of self-adorn­ment. Gar­ments served as tools of re­sis­tance against ac­cu­sa­tions of inferiority, added Shantrelle P. Lewis, a re­searcher, cu­ra­tor and film­maker who re­sides in Ger­man­town.

In black com­mu­ni­ties, sar­to­rial ideals can be ex­act­ing and ex­pen­sive. For chil­dren who lack the means to look fresh, the dis­ap­point­ment can be crush­ing. Ex­perts and pro­fes­sion­als say that fam­i­lies are more will­ing to pick up the tab for prom high fash­ion.

“This prom day that we come to, our par­ents, un­cles, aunts, they have been sav­ing up money for us to live out this dream, this fan­tasy,” said videog­ra­pher Lawrence “J-Tech” Jones. When teens who’ve never rid­den in an air-con­di­tioned car find them­selves sit­ting in a Maserati, he wants to pre­serve that mo­ment. “I want to take their vi­sion of prom, I want to take it to another level with the mu­sic and the edit­ing. . It’s a keep­sake.”

Joseph Richard Win­ters, a Duke Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who re­searches black re­li­gious thought, has ob­served a com­mon, mor­bid nar­ra­tive about black life in Amer­ica. Prom send­offs tell another story.

“There is a mo­ment of re­prieve against the back­drop of con­straint,” Win­ters said. “Those mo­ments re­mind us that mourn­ing and cel­e­bra­tion don’t need to be seen as op­po­sites.” In the way that fu­neral ser­vices in the black church make room for cel­e­bra­tion, he said, a send­off can re­flect an emo­tional spec­trum. “It’s not ac­tu­ally for­get­ful­ness of (loss), it’s a re­sponse.”

Call­ing Home­land Se­cu­rity

With each of son Saa­jid’s mile­stones, Sonya Bar­low’s been try­ing to top her­self. The moon bounces, stilt walker, caterer, event planner and the DJ, Di­a­mond Kuts, were all in place at a re­cent Bel­mont Mansion send-off. But Home­land Se­cu­rity wouldn’t ap­prove the land­ing of a chop­per. So Mom planned for the first por­tion of the send-off to be live-streamed from a he­li­port.

He “never gave me an ounce of trou­ble,” said Sonya Bar­low, who owns a day care, a gift and party shop, and a clean­ing com­pany.

She sees it as her duty to lav­ish her son with such a show. She es­ti­mates that she spent $50,000. “I have to re­ward him for the things that he brings me joy with.”

Roughly 300 guests at­tended Saa­jid’s prom send-off. It had the feel of a com­mu­nity fair, un­til Saa­jid and his date, Ny­diyra Bryant Giles, ar­rived in a Rolls-Royce.

“My man, spot­less,” one on­looker said, tak­ing in Saa­jid’s suit.

Sau­dia Shuler, right, films her son, Nieme Brooker with his date Tiana John­son.

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