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The Cotillion, or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971), represents John O. Killens's presentation of assimilation, classism, and self-hatred set in the 1970s. The book explores African American family traditions and the political and social ramifications that influence these customs.

In The Cotillion, Killens steps into a community of African Americans and explores their dark sides. This satirical novel attacks the classism and assimilation that dominated many African American communities. Killens's character Lumumba represents that breed of African Americans who attempt to redefine themselves by separating themselves from their Eurocentric standards. In contrast to Lumumba's ideology, there exists a community of women that symbolizes the vise-grip Eurocentricism has on the African American.

Although most criticism of The Cotillion dealt with the theme of Afrocentricity versus Eurocentricity, the text also has a strong commentary on African American adolescence. Yoruba is coming of age and experiencing an identity crisis concerning her blackness and sexuality: to be an African queen for her new love, Lumumba, or a girl with “bourgeois inconsistencies.” She is a product of middle-class blacks who place higher value on how society perceives the adolescent from this upwardly mobile environment than on self-worth. Killens allows Yoruba's sexual awareness to become a part of her maturation as a woman and an individual. Killens demonstrates the impact of socialization on the sexual attitudes of middle-class blacks. He further implies that societal expectations and myths about African American women cause adolescents to think that only whores enjoy sex. As with Yoruba, most adolescents have been taught to fear sexual desires that involve sexual intercourse. Killens also asserts through Yoruba that coming of age for many adolescents is synonymous with becoming aware of their sexual identities which is in direct conflict with the views and values of their hypocritical communities.

Killens explores the impact of socialization on sexual attitudes of middle-class blacks. Societal expectations and myths about African American women cause Yoruba's mother in the text to think that only whores enjoy sex. He creates a character who society considers bourgeois and sexually repressed but who does not conform to such expectations. Creating such characters as Lumumba and Yoruba reaffirms Killens's goal of writing literature that revolves around social protest and cultural affirmation.

Killens creates a subplot in the text that further demonstrates his satirical examination of the inner workings of so-called middle-class African Americans. Through Yoruba and Lumumba, the reader must examine the conventions of Mrs. Youngblood, whose blood is “old” and sterile because she has accepted the conventions of white America as her own. Through these characters, Killens allows readers to examine the mirroring of characters with conventions and viceversa. Killens gives readers Yoruba, who confronts the repressive beliefs brought on by racism and classism and accepts the love and affection of her male counterpart, as a model.

Wanda C. Macon, “Adolescent Characters' Sexual Behavior in Selected Fiction of Six Twentieth Century African American Authors,” PhD diss., Ohio State University, 1992, pp. 59–65 and 101–110.

Wanda Macon

Subjects: Literature.

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