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Scholarship, sisterhood, service – black women in African American fraternities

When twenty-two young Black women came together at Howard
University to form Delta Sigma Theta sorority, their goal was to focus
on scholarship, sisterhood, and service to the African American
community. A review of the sorority’s early history indicates that
these young women, and the ones who followed them, did exactly that.

Members of Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority marched down
Pennsylvania Avenue in support of women’s suffrage in 1917, even though
our white sisters hardly welcomed us with open arms. We were (and
remain) advocates, activists, and excellent scholars.

The roster of stellar Delta women is long and distinguished, and
the roster of Delta’s accomplishments is outstanding. Our first
national President, Dr. Sadie Tanner Moselle Alexander, was the first
African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics, and was the first
woman to enter the Pennsylvania Bar. Under the leadership of Lillian
Pierce Benbow, the sorority’s Arts and Letters Commission produced a
film, “Countdown at Kusini,” because we felt that we should control
some of the means of cultural production, and the images of African
American women.

Delta Sigma Theta’s outstanding work complements that done by the
other African American women’s sororities, and relations between the
organizations might be described as “sisterly competition.” We all want
to be the best, to bring the most to our communities. To the extent
that we don’t trip over ourselves trying to do the very same thing, and
to the extent that we understand that, competition notwithstanding, we
are all African American women in the struggle. We are an enrichment to
our community.

As rich as our legacy is, though, there are issues of membership
intake that all of the African American Greek letter organizations must
deal with. These issues often tarnish our stellar record of
scholarship, service, and sisterhood. While no undergraduate chapters
of the sororities have had incidents as outrageous as those of the
fraternities, chapters have been suspended because of hazing incidents
that violate the boundaries of dignity and sisterhood. Some of the
hazing begs the question of African American women’s self-esteem. Why
should someone be degraded in order to be my sister. It might be “fun”
to dress up in silly costumes, but fun can turn ugly when there is no
compassion involved in the pledging process.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority has attempted to address some of these
issues by changing the membership intake process, but too many young
people circumvent revisions with “underground pledging.” This
unsanctioned activity often includes abuse and physical violence. It is
unnecessary, and unworthy of organizations whose purpose is to serve
the African American community.

In the spirit of sisterhood, though, it makes sense to review more
than illegal activities. We might also review the spirit of what
happens as part of the membership intake process. I know too many
people whose undergraduate pledging experience was so unpleasant that
they have only a peripheral relationship with their sorority now. I
know others who are active, but who carry decades-old grudges over
something that happened during the pledge process. If sororities say
they are a sisterhood, then what are sisters doing to each other to
cause all this negative baggage? And what are we going to do about it?
(And I don’t want to hear that white women have negative baggage, too,
because in this context I am not even thinking about white women).

A recently released study indicated that African American women are
at the bottom of the happiness hierarchy in this country, unhappier
than whites, as well as African American men. Why? Part of it must have
to do with the way Black women are unaffirmed in our society. But part
of it may have to do with the way that we, Black women, treat each
other. If we can’t model positive relationships in our sororities,
where we are supposed to be “the best and the brightest,” then what
does that say about our experiences outside sororities? If young women
can’t feel affirmed in a membership intake process designed by Black
women and for Black women, then should we expect to feel affirmed in a
larger society that is hostile to us?

To be sure, this can be explained psychologically and
sociologically. We can talk about women and competition, about the
extra burdens that women often take on when we juggle multiple roles.
We can talk about the status of the African American men and the burden
attacks against Black men place on Black women. We can talk about the
way Black women play status games around issues like skin color, class,
employment and even marital status. An infinity of explanations,
though,detract from the focus on sisterhood, scholarship, and service.
The bottom line is we can do mo’ better.

In her book, Sister Outsider, Audre Lord talks about the ways in
which the rage Black women direct toward each other often has a
special, ugly component. The fact that Black women experience rage is
not surprising. The fact that we unleash it on each other is
unsurprising, as well. What is disgraceful, however, is the extent to
which we unleash this rage while hiding behind a banner of sisterhood.
Our legacy doesn’t deserve to be tarnished by this distortion of our
purpose and history.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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