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Not your parents’ prom: Inside Philly’s elaborate send-off culture

Prom send-offs are a rite of passage. In an age where likes, followers and virality are status symbols, Philly's young people are presenting themselves.

Dayanna McBride and Quian Brown pose in front of the Tesla they will take to the prom after their Wakanda-themed prom send off on 22nd St. in North Phila., Pa. on June 6, 2018.
Dayanna McBride and Quian Brown pose in front of the Tesla they will take to the prom after their Wakanda-themed prom send off on 22nd St. in North Phila., Pa. on June 6, 2018. Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Saudia Shuler promised there would be action.

Last year, the North Philly mom made national headlines after dropping $25,000 for a prom sendoff. You might remember the camel she hired for the Dubai-themed 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 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 YesPhilly 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 send-off 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?

>> READ MORE: Camel prom mom hosts epic Christmas toy giveaway in North Philly

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."

>>READ MORE: How black Philadelphians' homes capture life's moments

A typical sendoff 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."

>> READ MORE: This motorboat, the Jawn, is the handiwork of Philly teens

Her son said he wanted just close family present for his sendoff, 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 sendoff. But Homeland Security wouldn't approve the landing of a chopper. So Mom planned for the first portion of the sendoff to be live-streamed from a heliport.

He "never gave me an ounce of trouble," saidd 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 sendoff. 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.

Out of the swarm of bodies that formed to receive his entrance, scores of hands rose to capture the moment on their cellphones.

>> READ MORE: This Bucks County teen isn't letting sickle cell stop her pageant dreams

Sonya became a single mom after Saajid's father was diagnosed with schizophrenia when the boy was 2 years old. Saajid received weekly advice from his grandfather, Andre "Shakur" Harvey, who was serving life at Graterford for murder. Without his grandfather's constant counsel, Saajid acknowledged, the pull of the street may have been too enticing.

The young emcee plans to leave Philadelphia. He loves the city, but says he hates encountering the mindset that "you got to be street." Whatever route he takes, when he's financially established, Saajid plans to find his father and get him on a consistent treatment plan.

Harvey wrote of his pride in a letter. To Sonya, he expressed that they all share the success. "It's a collective thing," he told her. "Your mother, me, you, his other grandparents and everybody else that love him and want to see him make it."