Most Americans are not very familiar with Black Greek-letter organizations. Their small numbers and obscurity, however, do not lessen their threat, and it is high time we give it serious attention. I would advise college and university administrators, students, parents and all others of good conscience to educate themselves.
Mainstream America’s greatest exposure to Black Greeks has been filmmaker Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” Among his numerous critiques was a story thread that took the organizations to task for their cultural shallowness, retrograde apoliticism and unchecked misogyny. Even though Lee intended “School Daze” to, at least in part, chastise and even condemn Black Greeks, he failed to effectively highlight the groups’ greatest problem — ubiquitous, life-threatening hazing. In fairness to Lee, “School Daze” was released a year before Joel Harris died attempting to join the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Lee’s and my alma mater, Morehouse College, in 1989.
Almost two decades later, another theatrical representation of Black Greek life has entered into America’s public sphere. Disturbingly, “Stomp the Yard” does little to address some of the troubling issues Lee touched upon. Contrarily, it largely plays like a “brag piece” centering on one of the most superficial, but popularized aspects of Black Greekdom — stepping. At the same time, the movie emphasizes the romanticized benefits of membership that Black Greeks glorify without end — purpose, unity, sacrifice, teamwork and love. Unlike Lee’s movie, “Stomp the Yard” makes little effort to substantively speak to the deeper sociopolitical quandaries faced by Black folk. This latest characterization is unfortunate and dangerous.
It should be understood that Black Greek-letter organizations are almost exclusively populated by college-educated African-Americans. Hence, one would expect them to be in the vanguard of the struggle for an egalitarian society. This, however, is not the case. Organizationally, Black Greek voices are, in fact, absent in most discussions of today’s pressing issues. When have they substantively addressed Black poverty, political disempowerment, disproportionate incarceration, police brutality, etc.? Make no mistake, the intentional or unintentional simultaneous glorification of certain aspects of Black Greekdom coupled with the refusal or inability to speak to its underbelly literally has deadly consequences.
When I finished writing Black Haze, the only book to date to solely center on the violence of the Black Greek pledge process at the end of 2002, I did not give the idea that the organizations may need to be eradicated any serious consideration. Since then, Black Greeks themselves have forced me to reexamine that commitment. At various speaking engagements on campuses around the country, I have talked about students being abused, injured and killed while pledging. Non-Greeks in the audiences often sit with mouths open — aghast. Greeks, however, are unflinching — emotionless. Often, they even openly defend the processes in spite of the deaths and damage recounted during our sessions.
It was disturbing. Their attitudes persist in the wake of hazing deaths and damage across the country. Joel Harris at Morehouse: Dead. Shawn Blackston at Louisville: Kidney damage. Kenitha Saafir and Kristin High in Los Angeles: Dead. Michael Davis at Southeast Missouri State: Dead. Braylon Curry at Southern Methodist: Brain damaged. Joseph Green and Vann Watts at Tennessee State: Dead. The list goes on.
In October of 2005, in the wake of an injury at Fisk University involving my own fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, I penned “Is it Time to Disband Black Greek-letter Fraternities and Sororities?” for Diverse, then Black Issues in Higher Education. The very title of this short piece ignited a firestorm of the likes Black Haze never did. The reason, of course, was simple. Even though I had not arrived at the point where I openly pushed for the dissolution of Black Greek fraternities and sororities, I certainly posed the question as to whether or not they should be. I never took that step in Black Haze. I must now not only pose the question, but answer it with a resounding “yes.”
Here are a number of stark and disturbing realities we must consider. In an effort to eradicate hazing, Black Greeks have constructed various Membership Intake Programs, which, in many respects, created more problems than they solved. Pledging did not die, it simply moved underground. So many chapters augment illegal underground pledging to the point where it is now the norm instead of the exception.
Black Greeks continue to deploy the empty argument that pledging and hazing are not the same thing. This is a semantic ruse only effective with those not familiar with the organizations. In fact, the activities are inextricably tied.
National organizations refuse to admit that hazing is not an activity limited to small groups of “renegade” members. In fact, it is deeply rooted in the cultures of the groups and is actively or passively condoned by a majority of members. Little has been done to effectively curb it. This indicates that the groups’ leaders have largely lost control of their memberships. Consequently, they have resorted to rule changes and public stances which they hope will shield them from legal attack, but have little or no effect on stopping the dangerous behavior of their members.
So, what is to be done?
Greek leadership, like alcoholics, must first publicly admit they have a serious, deep-seated problem that they have little idea how to stop and seek real help. To date, they have proven that they cannot, or do not want to, stop hazing on their own. It is essential that they, and their members, stop making excuses and demonizing those who offer real and legitimate critiques. Until then, they must accept responsibility for each and every injury and death resulting from hazing in their organizations.
National organizations must immediately adopt a real zero-tolerance policy on hazing. Any chapter involved in such activities should not be suspended — it must be closed forever. There are too many instances of the same chapters incurring suspension after suspension without end. In fact, some see frequent suspension as a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame. If Greek leadership is serious about stopping hazing, these chapters simply will have to cease to exist.
Black Greek leadership should also proactively seek legislators in every state who will sponsor bills to make hazing a felony instead of a misdemeanor. When faced with hazing cases, they should then join in the prosecution of hazers to the fullest extent of the law. I wonder how many Black Greeks will be committed to “keeping it real” when people are sent to jail or prison?
If none of these measures stops the hazing in these organizations, they must disband. If they will not do so voluntarily, colleges and universities should mobilize their in-house counsels to seek legal redress and have them banned from their campuses. There is no other choice. From an administrator’s point of view, these groups are risk-management nightmares and can no longer be tolerated in their present incarnations. From a concerned citizen’s point of view, they offer a continuous threat to life and mental health, and that cannot be tolerated either.
In 2006, while attempting to join Kappa Alpha Psi, Florida A&M student Marcus Jones was beaten so badly that he required surgery on his buttocks. At points, Jones and others were literally knocked out by Kappas, revived and hazed more. I stated my belief to a Tallahassee newspaper that Kappa was “primarily concerned about protecting the fraternity from legal entanglement. I, on the other hand, am concerned about Black children continuously put at risk by this process [pledging]. I don’t think one more life should be lost because of Kappa or any other fraternity. Where do you draw the line? Two? Five? Twenty? Fifty? Five hundred? I think I have the high ground.”
I still think I do.
Like many Black Greeks, I love my fraternity and believe in its ideals. But after years of this hazing madness, I must, without apology, take the stand that either Black Greeks have to stop it or they must go! I hope other reasonable people of good conscience will join me.
Dr. Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the University of Louisville’s Pan-African studies department and author of Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice and Manhood in Black Greek-letter Fraternities. He is a life-member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.
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