One in an occasional series
By the time the boys pass through the flowery trellis, they will be men. Not just men, but black men. And not just any old black men, but black men of a certain distinction, destined to prop up an entire people on their tuxedoed shoulders.
Who knew being 9 could be so complicated?
A manicured crowd waits expectantly for seven child-size tuxedo tails, seven pairs of white gloves, seven shiny red sashes to waltz into the fancy hotel ballroom for the seventh annual Young Gentlemen's Beautillion.
Introducing Jacob Roland Walker II . . .
Jacob's chin barely reaches the lectern as he fingers a passage from an inspirational text. "Black men should be especially conscious that negative thoughts and images undermine self-esteem," he says.
Introducing Paul Reid Gibson Bailey . . .
"In order for black men to prosper and take our rightful places in society, we must have the courage to surmount our fears."
Introducing Stephen Kyle Washington . . .
"Despite the injustices we have all endured, and continue to endure because of the color of our skin, there is an insurmountable joy in being black."
The scene at Arlington's Crowne Plaza Hotel has been playing out for decades. Black social groups have held beautillions, or black male versions of high-society coming-out cotillions, as a passage into an elite -- some might say elitist -- cadre of young men.
David Steven Spruill believes beautillions are needed now more than ever. Spruill is a fourth-grade teacher and founder of the Gentlemen's Institute, a sort of fraternity that has inducted nearly 100 youths into its Young Gentlemen's Circle through annual beautillions since 1998. Usually beautillion candidates are in their teens, but Spruill decided to start them earlier because of the crisis facing young black boys today.
"There are so many things that are chipping away at the self-esteem of our African American young people," he says. "We need to uplift the culture."
Giving recognition, building self-esteem and teaching boys the Old World requirements of a gentleman is one way to fight those challenges, Spruill says.
What's uplift to some may be elitist to others. And any black tradition that both mimics old southern gentry and excludes some black people is bound to have contradictions.
"It's almost like a Western schizophrenia of trying to blend two worlds," says Paul Hill Jr., a Cleveland sociologist who has studied male rites of passage around the world. "The beautillion has to do with the regeneration and the perpetuation of that class from an elitist perspective. The question is how do you reconcile class and culture in a way that is in the best interest of the whole community?"
Responds Spruill: "That kind of elitist mind-set is a thing of the past," he says. "Children are children, regardless of what their parents have, and all children deserve recognition."
Besides, the woman clutching her purse in an elevator won't realize that these beautillion candidates are the sons of lawyers, business people and clergy, or that they just made the principal's list. And the people who cross the street when they see them coming could care less if they were members of the Jack and Jill social club.
Most of all there's this: Who else is going to do it? It's like Spruill told the parents at the beautillion last Sunday: "Someone has got to grow up and lead this nation, and trust me, your kids are the ones."
This January, Spruill tapped the boys from his class at Metropolitan Day School, the Afrocentric Christian academy where he teaches in Northeast Washington, to be part of the beautillion. (The school is an affiliate of Metropolitan Baptist, one of the city's oldest and richest black churches.) He selected seven boys based on their grades and "social achievements" as members of various clubs.
Spruill, a 40-year-old former Army drill sergeant and 16-year teacher, has spent the past four months showing the chosen boys how to do the Viennese waltz, how to use good diction and properly sit at dinner. They've practiced these new skills during "Gentlemen's Nights Out" all over the city, with dinner at an upscale restaurant, "Gentlemen of Culture," a dance performance at the Kennedy Center, and "Gentlemen on the Greens," a day at the golf course with their dads.
People gawked at the group during these outings, Spruill says, because they are so unaccustomed to seeing black boys with such exquisite manners. But in the all-black, mostly affluent world the boys inhabit at church and school, Spruill says that kind of behavior is just expected.
"Peer pressure is an awesome thing," he says. "Because they've all accepted it, they support one another."
Eleven-year-old Omari Williams, a fifth-grader, signed up after seeing beautillion practice last year at Metropolitan. "I liked the way they danced, how smooth it was," he said. Omari wanted to learn how to be a gentleman, "a gentle man -- like, gentle to the ladies."
Jesse Lyles, 10, joined the beautillion "to be known to society, so people can know that I'm a well-taught African American."
Joshua Moore, 9, known at school as "Mr. Testimony" because of his recent resurrection as a top scholar, says beautillion training has taught him to be a gentleman, who is a person who speaks the king's English, "correct English -- not like those other black people," he said, mindful of the day's school lesson about Bill Cosby's recent controversial critique of black vernacular.
The boys spent months fundraising to cover the event, and sold close to $5,000 in ads for the glossy beautillion program. And here it is, finally: The boys -- young gentlemen -- get to strut their stuff.
Brandon Fitzgerald glides over to little Miss Avonda Fogan, bows his head and offers her a gloved hand. "That's all right!" a motherly voice calls out from the audience ringing the dance floor. The boys and their partners glide and twirl across the ballroom floor into seven little blizzards of pearls and white taffeta.
Later, the ladies line up in seats as the gentlemen simultaneously bow in a single row and present them with trinkets, such as silver bracelets and charms.
Over the loudspeakers, Whitney Houston asks "Who Would Imagine a King" as the boys raise one gloved hand. Seven heads swivel in unison as they raise the other hand into a clasp, then pull their hands into their chest as though in prayer. They glide over to the sweethearts, then break into one final reverse-turn waltz step.
Tears of recognition are flowing in the audience. "I was a debutante in 1966 and I remember how it changed my life," says Rosilyn King, whose grandson Brandon Fitzgerald was named King of the Beautillion and the group's valedictorian. She said the decorum and character lessons it instilled have stayed with her ever since.
The evening has put all the children on notice, says Claude Bailey, who works as general counsel for the Washington Convention Center and is Paul's father. "They've been given a set of challenges and expectations," he says. "Now it's much clearer and formalized."
Jacob Walker I, a Justice Department lawyer and father to Jacob II, has high hopes for the group. "You see these guys down the road, you never know, they may be running for the same seat in Congress."
Seven heads bow as Young Gentlemen's Circle President Kevin Dancy, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, hangs medallions around their necks. He grips their hands, hugs each new brother and steps back behind the lectern.
"By the power vested in me, you are officially recognized as members of the Young Gentlemen's Circle," Dancy says, and a triumphant burst of horns rings out.
"Gentlemen, take your bows."