In the United States, debutante ball, or cotillion, was a method borrowed from Europe to signal both the adulthood of a young woman and belonging to a particular caste in American society. For African Americans, the cotillion was a signal of belonging, but it also served the function of providing the upwardly mobile a way to "signify" (in the words of Dr. Henry Louis Gates) their ability to represent and uplift the race, and as a celebration of black girlhood. In Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone, the cotillion of the young daughter of the family might seem archaic in the 21st century, but its ability to tie together the family history and memory stretching back to the early 20th century provides a deeper look at the purpose of rites and rituals in African American society. This lecture will take you through the history of the cotillion, the ideas around racial uplift, the black family, and concepts of black girlhood and womanhood.
Angela Tate, M.A., is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on how Black women celebrities like Lena Horne, Etta Moten Barnett, and others, resisted the limitations placed on them because of race and gender, and their intellectual contributions to the global civil rights movement through dance, film, and fashion. Her previous roles include museum manager and curator in a number of cultural heritage institutions in California and Illinois. More information about her research and curation can be found at atpublichistory.com