In modern times, it is rare for young men to be formally initiated into manhood, and rarer still for them to be feted afterward with a grand, social debut in acknowledgment of their rites of passage.
Over nearly three decades, it has been a biennial ritual experienced, to date, by about 250 young African-American men from the region. Each time, the roughly six-month journey was sponsored by a group of mothers from the Buffalo chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a national nonprofit that offers character-building programs for black youths.
“Most communities have something for young ladies,” said Deirdre J. Roper, president of the Buffalo chapter of Jack and Jill, alluding to debutante balls traditionally held for young women to mark their public debut as adults.
“Nobody was doing anything for young men in the community, so Jack and Jill started a similar activity for young men,” Roper added.
That activity was an elaborate rite-of-passage ceremony held Friday in SENSES Village, 350 Genesee St., for a dozen African-American high school juniors and seniors who have excelled in academics, sports and community service endeavors. The cap to Friday’s ceremony will be the courtly Beautillion Extraordinaire, a male version of a cotillion, which is scheduled for April 20 in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a lot of years now. It’s very exciting,” Shane Paul, a 17-year-old senior at Grand Island High School, said during a break in last Thursday’s rehearsal for the rite-of-passage ceremony.
Shane and the 11 other “beaus,” or “initiates,” as organizers referred to them, were recruited six months ago and met up for weekly character-building workshops on health, ethics, finances and career exploration led by African-American men of stature in the community.
In addition, Roper said, the initiates participated in numerous community service activities together.
“They were ushers for the Urban League dinner. Usually, they work at First Night. They also have social activities, like skiing and snowboarding. They went to Lasertron. They’re going on an overnight trip with their fathers to Camp Whispering Pines” on March 8 and 9, Roper said.
“I’ve had two sons go through this. That’s how I became aware of Jack and Jill. I was not a Jack and Jill member when my oldest son, who is now 35 years old, was in the Beautillion,” she added. “I thought Jack and Jill did such a wonderful job, and the young men he met then, they are still good friends today.”
Likewise, recent initiate Joshua Ragland, a 17-year-old Williamsville South High School senior, anticipates the same kind of bonding.
“I consider most of these guys my friends and my brothers for years to come,” he said.
At Friday’s ceremony, Joshua and the other young men adopted West African names exemplifying the qualities and attributes to which each aspires. Joshua chose the name Bakari, which in Swahili means “one who will succeed.” Shane Paul chose the name Ubino, which he said means “creative.”
Meanwhile, Blake Littles, a 16-year-old junior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute who chose the name Talib Jarawa – which means “seeker of knowledge” in Arabic – was looking forward to the Beautillion Extraordinaire.
“We do a dance with our mothers, which is a traditional waltz to an old school R&B song, and we’ll be learning the dance in the coming Sundays,” Blake said.
Blake has two older brothers who have gone through the initiation before him. Their father, Henry Littles, talked about the value the experience has given his sons.
“I feel that the value that my sons have gotten out of it is actually being able to connect with other young men in the community and a brotherhood,” he said. “I think that’s more the value that I’ve seen, in particular, and also having a chance to have another connection with the mothers that mainly is just having a connection within themselves.”