Danielle Nolen sat in her living room, looking glamorous in a baby blue robe and trying to preserve her new regal hairstyle as her family decorated the backyard in black and gold in anticipation of her grand appearance.
Her grandmother began fanning her to keep her from sweating off her makeup as the day grew more humid. Once everything was in place outside, the women in her family made their way back to the living room, where they helped her into her emerald gown. As her mother made the final adjustments and zipped the back of the gown, we all sat back in amazement at how radiant she looked in her ensemble.
We then gathered family and friends in front of Danielle’s home to await her appearance. The DJ cued up her favorite song. A wicker chair awaited her on the porch, but it might as well have been a throne.
This is what a Chicago-style prom send-off looks like in action. While not exclusive to Chicago, these prom send-offs have become a rite of passage for many Black girls in which their communities celebrate the girls as they take what will be one of many symbolic steps on their journey toward womanhood. For Black girls on the west and south sides of Chicago, prom send-off represents a tradition that goes back – as far as I can tell – at least to the 1990s.
A matter of tradition
As a researcher of Black girlhood, I interviewed and attended prom send-offs for both Danielle Nolen, 20, who attended prom in 2019, and Tonayvia Turner, 19, who attended prom in 2020 amid COVID-19 restrictions. My purpose was to learn more about what these occasions represent – both for the girls and for their communities. In my research, I didn’t find much – if anything – that discussed the kinds of prom send-offs that I observed in Chicago. Below are four ways that these events are distinct from regular prom dates.
1. They celebrate Black girlhood
In a society that elevates white or Eurocentric beauty standards over others, prom send-offs put the focus on Black girls’ beauty and style based on their own standards. The prom send-offs also afford Black girls an opportunity to partake in a sort of pageantry, such as balls held for debutantes, that is often inaccessible to middle- or working-class families, such as the ones who reside on the west and south sides of Chicago.
Also, research has shown that Black girls are more likely to be seen as less in need of support, nurturing, protection and comfort than other girls – a process known as “adultification.” It is within this context that Danielle says prom send-offs represent a welcome change of pace “for us (Black girls) to be catered to.” Tonayvia also emphasized the importance for Black girls to have a shared experience and the feelings of being cared for.
2. They take elaborate planning
Prom send-offs on the west and south sides of Chicago are not small, intimate prom send-offs where parents take pictures of their child with a date. The ones I’ve seen are more elaborate productions. Some girls start planning a year out. Both Danielle and Tonayvia, for instance, said they began planning for their prom send-offs as soon as they became high school seniors.
It takes much organizing to gather the resources needed to pull off a magical presentation. In a prior job as a youth program coordinator, I saw many Black girls who sought employment solely to pay for the expenses associated with going to prom – everything from buying a dress to renting a car or limo.
3. They’re community affairs
Black girls and their families organize prom send-offs as a “thank you” to the members of their “village” – old and young alike.
I have seen people from all aspects of the prom-goer’s life attend prom send-offs – everyone from teachers and mentors to fellow church members and co-workers. Even after Danielle was chauffeured to the formal prom dance, I stayed behind with her family to enjoy a cookout and line dancing.
4. They support Black businesses
For their prom send-offs, Black girls are intentional about using the services of Black entrepreneurs in their community – from beauticians and photographers to caterers and DJs.
They often rely on word-of-mouth recommendations in their networks to solicit goods and services from Black-owned businesses. For example, in one Chicago neighborhood, Donyell Wynn, owner of Fashionably Unpredictable, is highly sought after for making custom prom gowns.
Prom send-offs are sacred and celebrate Black life in the face of ongoing grief and loss. They extend care and love to create a memorable and enjoyable experience for their communities for years to come.